One of the most compelling reasons to participate in a community organization is the perspective it provides. Recently, I volunteered to write a short article on Judge Sakuma, who passed away in late January.
Before this assignment, I'd never heard of Judge Sakuma. How that was possible, I do not know! His inspiring life story reads like an action drama movie.
Mamoru Sakuma was the first Japanese American to be named to the Sacramento County bench. It all started in 1918, when Judge Sakuma was born in Oroville, a city 70 miles north of Sacramento. His parents were first generation Japanese immigrants who ran a small business in the neighborhood.
Judge Sakuma attended UC Berkeley and graduated with a degree in political science. He was accepted to study law at UC Hastings. I remember not loving my first year of law school but I'd do it five times over rather than have it interrupted by a war and have my family interned.
Incredibly, Judge Sakuma left law school while the government relocated his family to Tule Lake at the California-Oregon border. If you've ever moved, you know how inconvenient and unappealing it is. Imagine being forced to move and not knowing when you'd return or to what.
Instead of moping about missing Criminal Procedure with his class, he enlisted with the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, an all-Asian American unit that earned the distinction of becoming the most decorated military unit in U.S. history.
Then, he returned from service, went back to UC Hastings and earned his JD in 1949.
It's as if he wanted to be my hero by passing the bar and then opening his own practice! In 1950, he opened an office in Sacramento as a litigator whose practice included civil and criminal matters.
Governor Pat Brown appointed Judge Sakuma to Municipal Court in 1963. The next year, he was elected to serve on the Superior Court. Twenty one years later, in 1984, he retired from the bench and then . . . returned to private practice for the following 20 years.
By the time he retired in 2005, he totaled more than 400 trials in state and federal courtrooms and argued before both the California and U.S. supreme courts.
The last line of my article reads: "Judge Sakuma’s professional and personal life decisions challenged anti-Japanese sentiments and, ultimately, his contributions paved the way to better the legal and social climate we enjoy today." Not many people have the opportunity to make such a large contribution to history.
Researching his life was uplifting. As you can see from my remarks, my imagination connected with the details of his life. That's the beauty of remembering history and the giants that paved the way for us. We see all the accomplishments framed by hardship compelling us to keep going too.
And the inspiration would not stop! Civil Rights attorney Dale Minami, Judge Hom and the State Bar's own Ruthe Ashley graciously contributed to the article, heartening readers by representing the strength that has developed since Judge Sakuma's early days.
He passed away this year on January 29, 2011. At 92, he left a legacy of distinguished service and was, by all accounts, gracious and amiable as well.
Volunteering seems like extra "work" at times but believe me, sometimes you receive much more in return.