King County Superior Court Judge Warren Chan served for nearly 24 years, becoming the first Asian American in the state to win election to the bench in 1968. Judge Chan, who also co-founded the Wing Luke Museum and Seattle Chinese Garden, died June 15. He was 92.
Few people expected Warren Chan to win a seat on the King County Superior Court. Some even tried to talk him out of running.
But as the city’s first Chinese-American attorney, Judge Chan had cultivated a client list over 18 years in practice that included owners of nearly a dozen Chinese restaurants.
In the lead-up to the 1968 election, diners at those eateries — many of them white — received fortune cookies with slips of paper tucked inside that read, “Chan for Judge.”
“It was an immediate hit,” said Wes Uhlman, Judge Chan’s former law partner who served 10 years in the Legislature and an additional eight as Seattle’s mayor.
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“It surprised everybody,” said Uhlman, when Judge Chan didn’t just win the primary that year but trounced his opponent — a descendant of one of Seattle’s pioneering families — by more than 30,000 votes.
Judge Chan, who became the first Asian American in the state to be elected to the bench, served nearly 24 years as a Superior Court judge.
In declining health for several years, he died June 15, said his daughter, Jill Chan Rinearson of Vashon Island. He was 92.
“He was the first in a lot of things. He didn’t think, ‘Oh, that hasn’t been done so I’m not going to try,’ ” Rinearson said of her father. “He saw a need, he had a drive, he was very capable and smart. He was a trailblazer.”
As a judge, he was an early advocate for work-release programs for jail inmates, increasingly tougher punishments for repeat offenders and an improved judicial code of ethics.
Judge Chan also was a dedicated family man and civic leader who co-founded the Wing Luke Museum in honor of his friend Seattle City Councilman Wing Luke. Luke and two others died in a plane crash in May 1965, though the wreckage wasn’t found until three years later.
Judge Chan and his wife, Nobie Chan, also helped establish the Seattle Chinese Garden and the garden’s education center, which is named in their honor at South Seattle College.
Born Dec. 29, 1922, in San Francisco, he was only a few months old when his family moved to Seattle, where his father, James Jick Chan, had accepted a job as a Cantonese translator for the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service.
Judge Chan’s mother, Violette Yow, “was very open-minded when it came to other cultures, and that’s how my dad was as well,” Rinearson said. Though he dealt with racism and discrimination as a fourth-generation Chinese American, Judge Chan maintained an attitude of defiance, refusing to be defined by stereotypes, his daughter said.
The fourth of eight children, he graduated from Garfield High School in 1940, then joined the Army in the early months after the U.S. became involved in World War II. He was trained as a radio operator and served in the Pacific Theater for three years.
After the war, Judge Chan’s father offered to pay for college so long as he pursued a medical career. He declined, paying his own way to become the first Chinese-American graduate of the University of Washington Law School.
An editor of the Washington Law Review, Judge Chan was fourth in his class when he graduated in 1950 — but despite his accomplishments, no law firm would hire him.
He spent a year as a clerk for state Supreme Court Justice Frederick Hamley, then went into private practice, later becoming senior partner at the law firm Chan, Uhlman & Callies. When he was appointed to serve as a pro tem judge on the Seattle Municipal Court in 1956, he became the first Chinese American to occupy a judicial post in the country, The Seattle Times reported at the time.
In 1949, he married Virginia Ondo, whom he had met while attending the UW. The couple had three children, the youngest — Rinearson — born in 1961, a year before Virginia died.
In 1964 he married Nobie Kodama Terao, who also had three children. A few years later, the blended family of eight moved into a seven-bedroom, English manor house with a large garden near Seattle’s Seward Park, where Terao — a retired teacher and college administrator — still lives.
Judge Chan’s large, extended family and a host of friends all pitched in to get him elected on a shoestring budget by ringing doorbells and stuffing envelopes, according to a news story that ran in The Seattle Times on Nov. 6, 1968.
Ruby Chow, who was later elected to the King County Council, was a huge supporter, using her restaurant on First Hill to serve those fortune cookies to spread word of his candidacy outside the Chinese community.
“He was a person who judged people’s actions, but he didn’t condemn people’s characters,” said retired state Supreme Court Justice Faith Ireland, who considers Judge Chan a mentor and an ally to women on the bench.
“He was very brave and bold. He was out front as an Asian American,” said Ireland, who joined the Superior Court in 1983, but years earlier had worked with Judge Chan to establish the Wing Luke Museum.
Before the state’s Sentencing Reform Act of 1981 went into effect, creating standardized sentences for criminal defendants, judges had more discretion in meting out punishment. In one case, Judge Chan agreed to a lesser jail term for a man convicted of assault — on the condition he enlist in the Marine Corps upon his release, the Times reported. In another, he ordered a sex offender to wear a sign in public that read, “I’m a child molester.”
In 1979, Judge Chan presided over a murder case that, at the time, was the most expensive in state history, costing the county $1 million and requiring jurors to be sequestered for 14 weeks. That same year, Judge Chan tossed out a lawsuit filed by motorcycle daredevil Evel Knievel that aimed to prevent a motorcycle-jumping contest at the Kingdome.
“He had a very sharp mind … He was very fair and had a good knowledge of the law,” Uhlman said of the judge.
In addition to his wife and youngest daughter, Judge Chan is survived by his children, April Hale, Cindy Nomura, James Chan and Mark Terao, all of Seattle; son Taylor Terao, of Tukwila; sisters Agnes Wazny, Beatrice Eng and Vivian Chun, and brother Leslie Chan, all of Seattle; and eight grandchildren.
Judge Chan was buried June 24 in a private, family service at Seattle’s Evergreen Washelli Memorial Park.
A public memorial service is planned at 1 p.m. July 3 in the Seattle Chinese Garden at South Seattle College, 6000 16th Ave. S.W., Seattle. In lieu of flowers, gifts can be made in his name to the Seattle Chinese Garden, seattlechinesegarden.org.