HONOLULU (AP) — The judge who halted President Donald Trump’s revised travel ban is the only Native Hawaiian serving on the federal bench.
U.S. District Judge Derrick Kahala Watson, who was nominated by former President Barack Obama in 2012 and confirmed by the Senate with a 94-0 vote, is the fourth Native Hawaiian federal judge in U.S. history.
“I am confident he will continue to serve our country well, and with Native Hawaiians being underrepresented on the federal bench, his confirmation is a big step in the right direction towards diversifying the court,” U.S. Brian Schatz said in a statement when Watson’s confirmation was announced in 2013.
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Watson isn’t fixated on being a Native Hawaiian jurist, said Keith Lee, corporate counsel for the Waianae Coast Comprehensive Health Center.
The judge is a play-by-the-book kind of man and isn’t influenced by politics, Lee said.
Lee first got to know Watson in 2012— the soon-to-be judge was still an assistant U.S. attorney— while they worked on a settlement together. “He was super fair,” Lee said.
They crossed paths again at a Washington D.C. conference for the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association.
“He doesn’t have a big ego,” Lee said. “If anything, he’s kind of understated.”
Honolulu lawyers refer to Watson as a “double Harvard” for where he received his undergraduate education in 1988 and his law degree in 1991.
But his roots are in Hawaii, where he attended a private school that gives admission preference to Native Hawaiians.
“I am proud to welcome this Kamehameha Schools graduate to serve in such a prestigious capacity,” U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard said when Watson was confirmed.
Honolulu defense attorney Michael Green has had numerous cases before Watson. “The man is extremely strict and principled,” Green said.
That strictness was evident during a sex assault trial last year, which Watson tried to keep on a tight schedule, Green said. But when Green’s wife suffered a stroke during the trial, Watson showed kindness. “He slowed the trial down so I could be there for closing argument and to finish my examination of key witnesses,” Green said. “He can be deemed a very tough sentencer. If you look between the lines, there’s compassion.”
While at the U.S. attorney’s office in Hawaii Watson was chief of the civil division. Before that he was partner at a San Francisco firm, where he focused on product liability, toxic tort, and environmental cost recovery litigation, according to his biography posted on the Honolulu federal court’s website.
Watson was an assistant U.S. attorney in the Northern District of California from 1995 to 2000, including serving as deputy chief of the civil division from 1999 to 2000, the bio said.
“The only thing I don’t like about him is that he’s a hardcore Dodger’s fan,” Lee said with a laugh.