Judge Kenly Kato – Nominee to the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California

On October 8, 2017, Judge Beverly Reid O’Connell, a federal judge in Los Angeles, unexpectedly and tragically passed away after collapsing in a middle of a speech to the California State Bar. Her seat still sits vacant to this day, with the nomination of U.S. Magistrate Judge Kenly Kato being the Biden Administration’s first attempt to fill it.

Background

Kenly Kiya Kato got her B.A. summa cum laude from the University of California Los Angeles in 1993, and a J.D. cum laude from Harvard Law School in 1996. After graduating, Kato clerked for Judge Robert Takasugi on the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California before joining the federal public defender’s office in Los Angeles.

In 2003, Kato returned to private practice, and worked as a solo practitioner for ten years.

In 2014, Kato was selected as a U.S. Magistrate Judge for the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California

History of the Seat

Kato has been nominated to the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, to a seat vacated on October 8, 2017 by the untimely death of Judge Beverly Reid O’Connell.

On November 21, 2019, the Trump Administration nominated U.S. Magistrate Judge Steve Kim, a colleague’s of Kato. However, Kim never received a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee and his nomination expired at the end of the Trump Administration.

Legal Experience

Kato started her career as a federal public defender, representing indigent defendants in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California. Among her clients, Kato defended Steven and Philip Alexander, brothers who allegedly flashed white power signals and harassed a white woman walking with her black fiance and biracial sons. See David Houston, Hate Crimes, City News Service, July 13, 1999. She also represented Desmond Abraham, a cruise ship worker accused of sexually assaulting two female passengers, when prosecutors declined to proceed to trial on the charges due to a lack of evidence. See Matt Krasnowski, Sexual Assault Charges Dropped Against Cruise Ship Workers, Copley News Service, May 23, 2000.

Kato also represented clients on appeal, successfully persuading the Ninth Circuit to order the dismissal of charges against her client on the grounds that the trial judge erred in ordering a mistrial and that her client’s Double Jeopardy rights would be violated by a retrial. United States v. Bonas, 344 F.3d 945 (9th Cir. 2003).

Jurisprudence

Since 2014, Kato has served as a U.S. Magistrate Judge in Los Angeles. In this role, she presides over settlement, preliminary hearings, bail, and any cases where the parties consent to her jurisdiction. Among the matters she has handled as a magistrate judge, Kato recommended that an inmate’s civil rights claim for violations of privacy be dismissed, noting that the inmate had failed to establish that the violative conduct alleged rose to the level of a constitutional violation. See Morris v. CDCR, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 71473 (C.D. Cal. Mar. 13, 2017).

In a benefits case, the Ninth Circuit affirmed Kato’s ruling remanding the case back to the Administrative Law Judge after finding error instead of awarding benefits to the petitioner. See Brandon v. Saul, 821 F. App’x 857 (9th Cir. 2020).

Political Activity

Kim has a few political contributions to her name, including a $1000 contribution to the Kerry for President campaign in 2004.

Statements and Writings

As a law student, Kato coauthored a review discussing the political and cultural status of Asian Americans. See Perry S. Chen and Kenly Kiya Kato, The State of Asian America: Activism and Resistance in the 1990s, 30 Harv. C.R.-C.L. L. Rev. 279 (Winter 1995). In the paper, Kato discusses the essays from the book “The State of Asian America” and notes that the essays reinforce the need for the Asian American community to self-advocate without falling into pre-existing stereotypes imposed by the political right and left. See id.

Overall Assessment

Judge Kato’s career threads the needle between the more unconventional nominees sought by the White House and the more traditional candidates picked by California’s senators. As such, Kato is likely to see a comfortable confirmation.