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Federal Court Judge Pamela Chen speaks to members of the NYC Bar Association

February 6, 2019 By Rob Abruzzese Brooklyn Daily Eagle
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Brooklyn Federal Court Judge Pamela Chen sat down with members of the NYC Bar Association late last month as part of the association’s “Lunch with a Judge” series where she talked about her career before the bench, why she became a judge and the types of cases she handles in her court.

Judge Chen, who graduated from the Georgetown University Law Center in 1986, had a career in private practice until she joined the U.S. Department of Justice in 1991 and became a senior trial attorney in 1992.

Judge Chen eventually moved on to the Eastern District of New York, where she became an assistant U.S. attorney (AUSA) in 1998. There she worked as chief of the Civil Rights Litigation Unit from 2003 until 2006, then as a deputy chief of the Public Integrity Section from 2006 to 2007, then worked as chief of the Civil Rights section, made a brief stop at the New York State Division of Human Rights in 2008 and finally became a judge in 2013.

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“As an AUSA, Judge Chen began working in that office’s anti-human trafficking program,” said Brian Mangan, co-chairperson of the NYCBA’s “Lunch With a Judge” program along with Russell Morris. “In 2015, she and and Attorney General Loretta Lynch were honored by the Sanctuary for Families network.

About 30 members of the NYSBA showed up on a rainy day to listen to Judge Pamela Chen speak about her career and experiences on the bench.

“Since her appointment to the bench in 2013, Judge Chen has presided over a wide array of civil and criminal cases — of course, including civil lawsuits alleging racial profiling of Muslims by the NYPD and the tax fraud prosecution case of former U.S. Congressman Michael Grimm,” Mangan continued. “Judge Chen is the second Chinese, female Federal District Court judge and is the first openly gay Asian-American judge.”

About 30 members of the NYCBA packed into a room in the elegant bar association building in Midtown Manhattan to listen to the judge. The hour-and-a-half long talk was mostly a question-and-answer session, with the judge answering a few pre-submitted questions before they opened it up for additional questions from members.

Not surprisingly, the judge was often asked about her work with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in combating human trafficking. She began doing that work in 2003, just three years after the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000 was signed into law by then-President Bill Clinton.

“Doing all of the human trafficking work for the U.S. Attorney’s Office is singularly the best thing I have ever done in my career,” Judge Chen said. “Today it’s a subject in a lot of the media, but back in 2003 when we first started, nobody really knew about human trafficking, and the law was only about three years old … it turned out to be the most gratifying work I’ve done as a lawyer.”

Judge Chen was also asked about her career and her path to the bench. She explained that she had initially wanted to be a public defender, but ultimately joined the other side and became a prosecutor. She explained that overcoming early bouts of self doubt was tough for her.

“I’ve always been dogged by self doubt,” she said. “As a woman — and certainly as a minority — I think that comes with the territory. I always had this feeling of not belonging, that someone would find out that I’m a fraud even though I hit all of the markers: I got into a good law school, I did well, I went to a big law firm.

“I hadn’t measured up to what I thought I should be able to do in my first job, and it wasn’t a good fit for me,” said Judge Chen. “Recognizing over time that it was OK that environment didn’t work for me was a really healthy lesson. And since I’ve been in the government, I’ve really loved it.”

Members of the bar association also asked for the judge’s advice in helping to attract younger attorneys and more minorities and women. She used the Asian American Bar Association as an example, since it has committees dedicated to helping to develop legal pipelines, and they encourage younger lawyers pairing up with mentors.

Judge Chen had some simple advice for lawyers who practice in federal court.

“Know your case, bring your materials, know why you’re there, be prepared to make an argument if you have to, be civil to one another and to me,” she recommended. “Know the federal rules of evidence and the federal rules of civil procedure. If you do your job, submit something that is well researched and written on time, and don’t ask for extensions unless it’s an emergency — you will do fine in my court.”

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