When Judge Richard Ishikawa retired in 2000 after 21 years on the King County Superior Court, prosecutors, defense attorneys, clerks, bailiffs and other judges hailed the state's first elected Japanese-American judge for a career marked by fairness, integrity and a sly wit.

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When Judge Richard Ishikawa retired in 2000 after 21 years on the King County Superior Court, prosecutors, defense attorneys, clerks, bailiffs and other judges hailed the state’s first elected Japanese-American judge for a career marked by fairness, integrity and a sly wit.

It turned out to be a premature valediction.

Within three months, Judge Ishikawa returned to the court as a judge pro-tem, filling in for absent colleagues and continuing to accept cases until his health began to decline two years ago. Family members said he missed the work, the opportunity to mentor younger lawyers and judges, and the satisfaction of helping the judicial system run well.

Judge Ishikawa died Tuesday (March 3) from complications of congestive heart disease and kidney failure. He was 76.

To younger Asian-American lawyers, Judge Ishikawa was a role model and pioneer. A Gonzaga Law School graduate and an Army veteran who served in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps, he was unable to find work as a lawyer in Seattle in the early 1960s.

“Nobody would hire him. Nobody would give him the time of day,” said his oldest son, Kevin Ishikawa.

Finally, King County Superior Court Judge Eugene Wright took the young man as bailiff. Judge Ishikawa worked as a prosecutor and in private practice before being elected to the bench in 1979. When he was sworn in, Wright, who had gone on to the U.S. Court of Appeals, administered the oath.

Former Gov. Gary Locke appeared before Judge Ishikawa as a young deputy prosecuting attorney. Locke recalled Judge Ishikawa had a gruff and somewhat intimidating demeanor, but after court, Locke said, the judge took him aside and suggested ways to improve.

“He was always going out of his way to help young lawyers become better. That was rare among judges,” he said.

Judge Ishikawa was born in Seattle in 1932. When World War II broke out, his family was interned at Camp Minidoka in Idaho. They lost their Seattle home and both parents’ businesses.

After their release, the family settled in Spokane, where Judge Ishikawa attended Gonzaga. Judge Ishikawa’s children said their father rarely spoke about his internment experience.

But his wife, June, who was also interned at Minidoka, said that every year on the anniversary of his release, he would buy a can of Vienna sausage — a camp staple — take one bite, and throw the rest away.

“Tastes the same,” he would say.

As a judge, he presided over a wide variety of cases, from high-profile murders to child-custody disputes. In 1994, he handled the county’s first “three-strikes” trial: a man accused of stealing $337 from an espresso-stand operator. The defendant had two prior convictions, and the new law compelled Judge Ishikawa to impose a life sentence.

From the bench, Judge Ishikawa said that if it were up to him, he would have given the man five years, but he said changing the law was up to the Legislature.

“He felt that the judge didn’t have discretion in that case, that it’s up to the Legislature to decide punishment,” said King County Superior Court Judge Joan DuBuque. “He was always willing to do something that was perhaps unpopular, but was legally the right thing to do.”

At his retirement party in 2000, held at a Pioneer Square watering hole popular with courthouse regulars, Judge Ishikawa recalled a divorce case in which the husband was from Britain and kept addressing him not as “Your honor” but as “My Lord.”

“He’d say, ‘My Lord’ this and ‘My Lord’ that. Finally his lawyer said, ‘You don’t have to call him that.’ “

Judge Ishikawa said he turned to the lawyer and told him, “Mind your own business.”

In addition to his wife, June, and son Kevin, both of Bellevue, Judge Ishikawa is survived by son Steven and daughter Lisaye, both of Kent, and his sister Yoshie (Martha) Kaisaki, of Spokane. Services will be held at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday at Seattle Betsuin Buddhist Temple, 1427 S. Main St.

Lynn Thompson: 206-464-8305 or lthompson@seattletimes.com. Information from Seattle Times archives was included.