A Tribute to the Hon. Ronald S.W. Lew

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Senior District Judge Ronald S.W. Lew of the United States District Court for the Central District of California passed away on May 19, 2023. Judge Lew was 81 years old. Judge Lew was a trailblazer in the legal profession and a giant in the community. He was nominated to the federal bench by President Ronald Reagan in February, 1987, and was confirmed by the Senate in May, 1987. Judge Lew was the first Chinese American appointed to the federal bench outside of Hawaii. Before his appointment to the bench, Judge Lew served as a deputy city attorney for the City of Los Angeles, a municipal court judge, and a judge on the Los Angeles County Superior Court. He also served as a commissioner of the Los Angeles Fire and Police Pension Board, and served two years in the United States Army.

A native Angeleno, Judge Lew helped found the Chinatown Service Center, a non-profit organization that provides essential health and social services to Los Angeles’s Chinatown and surrounding communities. He also helped found the Southern California Chinese Lawyers Association in 1975 and served as SCCLA’s fourth president.

The United States District Court issued a statement on Judge Lew’s passing, which contains a number of moving tributes from his former colleagues on the bench.

Our Committee has also collected tributes and photographs from some of Judge Lew’s former law clerks and mentees, including our own Committee member Elaine Zhong. We extend our sincerest condolences to all who were part of Judge Lew’s family and extended Court family, and to his friends and colleagues across the nation.

Judge Lew was a towering figure in the legal community and in the lives of the many people who considered him a beloved mentor and friend. He was an inspiration to me and many others who were fortunate to have clerked for him over his decades on the bench. In addition to being a brilliant and trailblazing jurist, Judge Lew spent countless hours off the bench working to serve and better his community, including as a founding member of the Southern California Chinese Lawyers Association and the Chinatown Service Center.

One of my fondest memories from my clerkship was accompanying Judge Lew to the Los Angeles Convention Center for a naturalization ceremony. Judge Lew addressed the large group gathered in the convention hall on the importance of U.S. citizenship and, after administering the citizenship oath, stayed behind to speak with and welcome dozens of appreciative and inspired new citizens.

Despite an always busy court calendar and countless community events, Judge Lew also found the time to generously dedicate himself to mentoring his clerks, externs, and countless other young lawyers seeking guidance. His advice to always “do good,” and his dedication to his work, his community, and his family will always be a model for me to aspire to in my professional and personal life. Judge Lew will be deeply missed by all who knew and loved him, and his legacy will continue to be an inspiration to me and many others for years to come.

Joshua O. Mausner, Assistant United States Attorney (Law Clerk 2008-2009)

Judge Lew was not just a trailblazer; he was a pillar of the legal community. His accomplishments were many; to start, he was the first Chinese-American federal judge in the continental United States, a decorated Vietnam veteran, a founding member of the Southern California Chinese Lawyers’ Association, and a dedicated jurist for over 40 years.

But what was most remarkable about Judge Lew was not his personal accomplishments; it was the vast legacy he left behind. To the hundreds of law clerks and externs who had the privilege of working with him in Chambers, he wasn’t just a judge; he was the mentor who always encouraged them to do better, reach higher, and go farther. To me, he was an inspiration: someone who, like me, had grown up in Chinatown and was the child of immigrants, but nevertheless managed to persevere to pursue a legal career and a life dedicated to public service.  

Diana M. Kwok, Counsel, Sidley Austin (Law Clerk 2009-2011)

I will miss having lunch with Judge Lew, seeing him at annual reunions and law clerk lunches, receiving his yearly Christmas cards, and listening to his never ending supply of funny stories (often about some slice of Los Angeles history and his role in that). I’m grateful that he took a chance and gave me the opportunity to work with him, fresh out of law school over a decade ago (when I really didn’t know anything). And then continued to mentor me. I think we initially connected based on how our parents were similar. My parents are immigrants from the same Chinese province where his parents came from. They still speak and read little to no English and have no experience navigating higher education or professional environments. Knowing that with this background I would probably need guidance along the way, Judge Lew took his role as my mentor seriously. At key checkpoints in my life – for example, when I looked for my first job after clerking and then when I exited private practice – he was always around to give me his time, wisdom, and support. I will miss him.

Hon. Ronald S.W. Lew (center) with Elaine Zhong and spouse
Hon. Ronald S.W. Lew (center) with Elaine Zhong and spouse
Elaine Zhong, Deputy City Attorney, City of Los Angeles (Law Clerk 2012-2013)

I had the privilege of clerking for Judge Lew in 2013-2014.

I’m a little embarrassed to say, but I was intimidated by Judge from the moment I met him in my interview. Truthfully, I still am. He was tough in that interview — Judge did not suffer fools (and I certainly was one), whether in court or in Chambers. And Judge’s gruff exterior never fully lifted during my clerkship, even as he regularly flashed his roguish smile and sharp sense of humor. But that toughness simply emphasized the high standards he maintained for his Chambers.

That gruff exterior also hid just how much Judge cared about his clerks and externs; he tirelessly championed them in their careers and personal lives. Case in point: when I told him I was interested in clerking again a few years later, Judge instantly called ahead and fiercely advocated for me. And when I saw him after I went in-house, he celebrated it as though he knew that was exactly where I belonged.

I’ll miss you, Judge. May you rest in peace.

Hon. Ronald S.W. Lew with former law clerk Kevin Shuai
Hon. Ronald S.W. Lew with former law clerk Kevin Shuai
Kevin Shuai, Vice President, Paramount Pictures (Law Clerk 2013-2014)

This past weekend, members of the AAPI legal family celebrated the life of Judge Ronald S.W. Lew, who was instrumental in establishing the Chinatown Service Center in the 1970s. He helped draft the bylaws for the organization, which started with just 2 employees, and eventually grew to over 200 employees today. Whenever the Youth Program needed his assistance, he’d run over from his private law office to meet with the students and offer support.

But Judge Lew’s mentorship extended far beyond the Chinatown Service Center. I was lucky enough to first meet Judge Lew and his wife back in 2013 when they invited the Miss Los Angeles Chinatown Court to his chambers before his famous Lunar New Year Luncheon. It was because of Judge Lew that I first stepped into 312 North Spring Street—the same building that I have the honor of working in today. It was because of Judge Lew that I met so many members of the federal bar—the same group of people whom I am fortunate enough to work with today. Judge Lew’s ability to bring people together was unmatched.

In 2013, when he knew I was a few months away from starting at UC Irvine Law School, he encouraged me to become active with the Southern California Chinese Lawyers Association (SCCLA), the oldest AAPI bar association in the country and another organization that he helped establish. Despite his busy schedule, he remained closely involved with SCCLA and so many other Chinatown community organizations. To say Judge Lew was a role model of mine would be an understatement.

Kellye Ng, Assistant United States Attorney (Mentee)

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