AAPI Month: Celebrating Judge Holly J. Fujie

In celebration of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, the National Womxn of Color Collective (NWOCC) features Judge Holly J. Fujie of the Los Angeles Superior Court, who was appointed to the bench by California Governor Edmund G. Brown, Jr. in 2011. Judge Fujie received her bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Berkeley, and her JD from the UC Berkeley School of Law. Judge Fujie is an inspirational Japanese American judge who has mentored many women of color throughout her legal career.

When I asked whether Judge Fujie had always wanted a career in the law, her answer was no, when she was a child she wanted to be a college French professor because she wanted an excuse to travel to France.   It was only after her mother made the offhand, frankly sarcastic comment, “You talk so much, maybe you should be a lawyer” that Judge Fujie began to think of law as a career.

Growing up, Judge Fujie was always told that her only option for college was UC Berkeley.  She grew up in Oakland, down the street from the University, and both of her parents had attended Berkeley, although neither spent all four years there.  Her father was at the University for one semester when his education was interrupted by the attack on Pearl Harbor.  He was then incarcerated in the wartime Topaz concentration camp in Utah. He was released before the end of the war but was not allowed to return to the West Coast, so he completed his education at Brigham Young University.  Her mother was in high school when she was imprisoned at Topaz, and when she was released, she attended college at the University of Colorado before returning to the Bay Area to graduate from Berkeley.   Judge Fujie credits the service-oriented atmosphere at Berkeley with inspiring her in her career.

After graduation, Judge Fujie moved to Los Angeles, which as a Bay Area native she was raised to despise but which turned out to be one of the best decisions of her life. She loves the city and its weather, as well as the diversity of foods and cultures in Los Angeles, and she finds that it allows her to meet many people of different backgrounds and to learn new things every day.

Judge Fujie spent the last 21 years of her legal career before her appointment at the Los Angeles office of the Buchalter law firm, where she practiced complex business litigation, including contract, finance, regulatory, insurance and fraud. She loves the fact that in the course of a law career, your practice is always evolving, and allows anyone to re-invent themselves and learn new fields as the market changes. This means that you are always learning and never 100% sure of yourself, but her motto is “if you are not terrified all the time then you are not doing it right.”  It was with this in mind that in 2008 she ran for and was elected President of the State Bar of California, the first API and only the third woman to hold this position in the history of the California State Bar.

She decided to apply for appointment to the bench after decades of advising and mentoring many people of color, especially women, on becoming a judge. She recognizes that a major issue faced by people of color, especially Asian Americans in the legal field, is imposter syndrome, i.e., the feeling that no matter how actually qualified you are, you are not good enough. She herself saw this when she was asked to find great candidates for possible nomination to federal judgeships in California after Obama was elected.  She reached out to every API state court judge to see if they would apply to the federal bench but was turned down by virtually all of them on the ground that they believed that they were “not qualified” when in fact she knew that they were highly qualified for the job.  Judge Fujie has advised Senator Dianne Feinstein on appointments to the federal bench in California for over thirty years, and now also advises Governor Newsom on appointments to the Los Angeles Superior Court and the 2nd District Court of Appeal.

Judge Fujie eventually applied to the bench herself because she believed that if she was going to counsel others to overcome their fears and their imposter syndrome and seek leadership in the legal field, she had to lead by example and seek judicial office.  To no one’s surprise but her own, Judge Fujie was appointed, and she told me that she felt very fortunate that she was in the very first class of judges appointed by Governor Brown.

She knows that being a woman of color in the legal field has its own unique challenges, as “you often do not see people like yourself in your firm or in the courts,” and she has worked for many years to increase the number of women of color in leadership positions in the law. Judge Fujie told me that, as a woman of color, “you have to remember that you are not really disadvantaged, but you are instead unique and lucky because your perspective is enhanced by not only having your own cultural experiences to draw upon, but also that of the majority culture in which we all function.  You also understand that all people have unique cultural experiences and have different points of view.  This gives you a unique ability to see diverse perspectives arising from exposure to your own culture and those of other groups. This is your superpower.”

When asked about women who had inspired her in her life and in her career, she spoke about the influence of United States Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. Justice Sotomayor was in fact the first person to whom she confided her intention to apply to the bench.  When attending a Women of Color Coalition meeting at Berkeley Law while President of the law school’s Alumni Association, she met Justice Sotomayor and was so inspired by her that she told the Justice in a low voice that she was going to apply for appointment to the bench.  Justice Sotomayor enthusiastically grabbed her hand, thrust it into the air and announced in ringing tones “Holly’s going to apply to the bench!!!”  Judge Fujie knew that when a Supreme Court Justice makes a public announcement in front of a room full of women of color law students and the Dean of your law school, you better follow through.  She did and was appointed to the bench later that year.  After her appointment, Judge Fujie received a wonderful letter from Justice Sotomayor to congratulate her on becoming a judge.

Lastly, to end our interview, her advice to women of color in the legal field is to concentrate on becoming the best lawyer you can possibly be.  Work hard, challenge yourself and do your very best in whatever position you have.  Get involved in bar and pro bono activities and strive to become a leader in the profession, because you never know what opportunities may come your way.  Don’t let what you perceive as failures hold you back – move on and you will find success in the end.  And always be sure to help others whenever you can – if you are in law school, help those in high school and college. If you are a lawyer, help law students and more junior lawyers.  Encourage and help them to succeed and you will yourself have a successful career in the practice of law.

By: Ida Ayu Sabrina Putri, Esq.

Director of Alumni Relations & Mentorship Program


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