Hawaii’s newest U.S. district judge will bring a judicial philosophy shaped by two mentors who taught her that the law must always make sense and that no one should leave the courtroom stripped of their dignity.
Leslie E. Kobayashi, whose lifetime appointment by President Barack Obama to the U.S. District Court was approved by the Senate last weekend, spent her private-practice career with the law firm headed by Wallace Fujiyama, a blunt-speaking, highly influential Honolulu attorney, and James Duffy Jr., now a Hawaii Supreme Court associate justice.
She will be Hawaii’s 12th U.S. district judge since statehood.
"Wally would yell at us when we came up with research," Kobayashi recalled in an interview after her appointment was approved.
LESLIE E. KOBAYASHI
» Born: Oct. 9, 1957, in Mount Holly, N.J., where her father, Herbert Kobayashi, was serving in the Army at Fort Dix; moved to Hawaii when she was about a year old.
» Education: Kaiser High School, 1975; Wellesley College, 1979; Boston College School of Law, 1983
» Legal career: City deputy prosecutor, 1983-1984; Fujiyama, Duffy & Fujiyama, 1984-1999 (partner in 1991, managing partner 1994); U.S. magistrate judge, 1999-2010
» Family: Married to Clarence Pacarro, Honolulu district judge; two children: Cody, 11, and Luke, 7
"He’d say that doesn’t make sense. You can’t be theoretical about the law. He’d say the law applies to people so it has to make sense. He’d say we’re not law professors, and we’re not here to do some sort of intellectual discussion. This has real impact on clients," she said.
Those words, she said, "always sort of stayed with me."
Duffy, Kobayashi said, would tell her always to fight hard but fairly.
"You always want to leave everyone with their dignity because he said even a coward will turn and fight you if you back him into a corner and lock the door," she said.
"If you take away people’s dignity and humiliate people, you give them no choice."
Kobayashi, federal judge magistrate since 1999, will take her $174,000-a-year position on the U.S. district bench here with full-time judges David Ezra, Michael Seabright and Susan Oki Mollway.
Mollway became the country’s first female federal district judge of Asian ancestry when she was appointed by President Bill Clinton in 1999.
The only other district with two female judges of Asian ancestry is in the much larger central district of California, with 27 judges. Dolly Gee and Jacqueline Nguyen, also Obama appointees, were named to the federal bench last year.
Kobayashi was nominated by Obama after U.S. Sens. Daniel Inouye and Daniel Akaka ranked her first among five candidates screened by a committee.
"I think she had broad support as a candidate from the local bar, and deservedly so," said Federal Public Defender Peter Wolff, who was among the three names the senators sent to the president.
"She’s got a lot of experience, and she certainly knows what the job is about," Wolff said. "I think she’ll be good."
KOBAYASHI, 53, daughter of retired dentist Herbert Kobayashi and retired public school teacher Ruth Kobayashi, worked as a clerk with the Fujiyama, Duffy firm during her last year of law school, then at the city prosecutor’s office in 1983 and 1984.
Her supervisors were Darwin Ching, a recent candidate for prosecutor, and Peter Carlisle, now Honolulu mayor.
Ching recalls a bright, articulate young lawyer who would win cases not by shouting, but by outmaneuvering the other side.
"She was a star even back then," Ching said. "I always knew she was headed for something better and bigger."
Kobayashi said her days as a prosecutor were a great learning experience, akin to "boot camp," but with an exhausting schedule that included a stretch of about 20 back-to-back jury trials over two or three months.
She recalled Robert W.B. Chang, an administrative judge, once tracking her down at the women’s restroom after she had just finished a trial.
He waited until she came out and told her, "You’re going to pick a jury in a half-hour."
Kobayashi later took a job with the Fujiyama firm, where she worked until she was appointed a federal magistrate judge in 1999, a position she held until her elevation to the district bench.
She said she was not hired after the clerkship because Fujiyama, who grew up in a different era, did not want to hire women.
He changed his mind later because of the firm’s workload but vowed he would never work with her, Kobayashi said.
But several months later, Fujiyama told her, "You. Get over here."
She started working with him in a civil case, and worked mostly with him until he died in 1994. She rose to managing partner.
Kobayashi said Fujiyama’s reluctance to hire women stemmed from concern that he would invest time in them only to have them get married and have kids.
"He was tough," Kobayashi said. "I didn’t start having kids until after he died."
KOBAYASHI married Clarence Pacarro in 1990. A former deputy prosecutor, Pacarro has been a Honolulu district judge since 2002.
The two are the only full-time husband-and-wife judges in Hawaii.
They do not see their children following in their footsteps.
"We just tell them. ‘We want you never to be involved with the criminal justice system,’" she said, laughing.
As a magistrate judge, Kobayashi handled pretrial felony criminal matters as well as more than 20 civil jury trials.
Her notable cases includes her decision in The Honolulu Advertiser’s quest to unseal records in a lawsuit by a Honolulu detective against the city. Her ruling, affirmed by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals and cited in open court document disputes, set standards for the sealing of court records based on the presumption that they all must be public.
Kobayashi also developed a reputation of having the right temperament for helping settle cases, which she believes has been the best part of her job — "to work with people and get them to resolve matters."
Duffy, who remains a good friend, said, "She has an excellent judicial temperament; she’s a very fair person, compassionate, a good listener, and I think she’s been a very good settlement judge in federal court."
Duffy said Fujiyuma wanted to invest time with people he felt really worked hard and had a chance to "do good for the community."
He said Fujiyama took him under his wing. "I think that’s what he did for Leslie, too."
Kobayashi said they named their first son, Cody James Pacarro, after Duffy.
"He really is a genuinely good person," she said. "I’ve always admired him for that."
Kobayashi is scheduled to be sworn in within the next two weeks; the ceremonial swearing-in is expected to be held sometime in February.