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The United States Senate confirmed longtime magistrate judge Kenly Kato to a federal judgeship over Inland Empire’s cases Nov. 7. 

Kato will be appointed to the Eastern Division of United States District Court for the Central District of California.

Her Senate confirmation was close and along party lines. Each Democrat and the Senate’s three independents gave her a combined 51 aye-votes, while 46 Republicans voted nay and three Republicans elected not to vote.

Kato joined the California Central District as a magistrate judge in 2014. In that role she presided over petitions, discovery and settlement hearings, misdemeanors and preliminary felony procedures. She also had the authority to handle trials at the consent of the litigants. She worked on the court’s Conviction and Sentence Alternatives Program, and Substance Abuse Treatment and Re-entry Program teams.

Four San Bernardino Superior Court judges who previously served as assistant United States attorneys wrote in support of Kato.

The Inland Empire Chapter of the Federal Bar Association supported Kato in a letter to the leaders of the Judiciary Committee.

“She is highly regarded by federal practitioners in the local bar as an extraordinarily competent, even-tempered, and perceptive jurist. In fact, many civil practitioners – both plaintiff and defense counsel – stipulate to her to presiding over all aspects of their cases as a magistrate judge under the Court’s direct-assignment and consent programs. Judge Kato is humble, patient, and fair, and in our experiences as federal practitioners, we have observed that Judge Kato’s primary guiding principle has been defending and implementing the rule of law and the precepts found in our Constitution,” their letter reads.

“We are delighted that Judge Kato will now be a district judge of this Court,” said Chief Judge Philip S. Gutierrez of the Central District of California, according to a press release. “Judge Kato has been an exceptional magistrate judge for many years, approaching each case with intelligence, integrity, and compassion. She will undoubtedly bring the same skills and qualities to the bench as a district judge, and we are lucky to continue to have her as a colleague.”

The Asian Pacific American Lawyers of the Inland Empire also submitted a letter in Kato’s support.

“A dedicated public servant and an exemplary judicial officer in the Central District, Judge Kato’s wealth of experience as a magistrate judge since 2014 and in indigent criminal defense, her unimpeachable reputation throughout the district and beyond, and her longstanding commitment to public service make her an excellent nominee for the Central District bench. If confirmed, she would become the first Japanese American woman and the third Asian American woman to serve as a district judge in the Central District,” their letter reads.

In a questionnaire she submitted to the Judiciary Committee, she said her most significant litigation was in the case of United States v. Scharf (CR-07-1292). Her client was charged with unlawful importation of a machine gun and smuggling. He was acquitted by a jury.

Kato received her undergraduate degree from the University of California, Los Angeles, in 1993. She studied law at Harvard Law School, with a third-year exchange program at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law. While there, she was an editor for the Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review. She also was a board member of the California Attorneys for Criminal Justice from 2005 to 2007.

Her work on the Law Review was questioned by the Republican members of the Senate, who blocked her first chance at the judgeship.

President Joe Biden nominated Kato to the position on Dec. 15, 2021. Kato’s nomination initially met a dead end when the Senate Judiciary Committee tied 11-11 in their March 10, 2022, vote to recommend her to the Senate, resulting in a failed nomination. Each Republican voted against her, while each Democrat on the committee voted for her.

During the hearing, Kato was questioned by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) about existing litigation alleging racial discrimination in Harvard’s admissions process. She had responded that racial discrimination is unconstitutional, but that she was barred from speaking further on racial discrimination due to the code of conduct for United States judges.

Biden re-nominated her to the role Jan. 3. The Senate Judiciary Committee approved her Feb. 9 11-10. The members did not change their votes. Then-Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Florida), who had voted against Kato, had resigned from his post Jan. 8 to become president of the University of Florida, and there was an open seat.

Kato said she learned about the importance of litigation after hearing about her family’s internment during World War II.

“Hearing those stories of my family’s firsthand experiences impressed upon me from a very young age the critical importance of securing constitutional rights for everyone. It is what led me to the law. It is what led me to be a public defender, so I can play some role in ensuring that the Sixth Amendment was upheld, and now as a United States magistrate judge, having taken an oath to uphold the Constitution, it is truly an honor to work each and every day to ensure that everyone’s constitutional rights are protected,” Kato said at the hearing.

She replaces Judge Beverly O’Connell, who died on Oct. 8, 2017.

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