Chicago, IL - The Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) expressed sadness at the untimely passing of Judge Sandra Otaka, a member of the Chicago JACL and a prominent leader in the Asian American community. She was a strong advocate for Asian Americans and made history as the first Asian American elected as a Cook County judge. She died of natural causes at her home on June 6, 2009. She was 57 years old.
Born in California, she was a third generation Japanese American. Her mother and grandparents were interned during World War II when over 110,000 people of Japanese ancestry were removed from their west coast homes and placed in concentration camps in desolate areas of the country.
She was politically active as a young woman and campaigned against the Vietnam War. She worked as a waitress before enrolling as an undergraduate at the University of California at Berkeley at age 28. As a student at Berkeley, she volunteered as a legal clerk with the law firm of Minami, Lew and Tamaki, working to overturn the conviction of Fred Korematsu, a Japanese American jailed in 1944 for failing to report to an internment camp. She was present when the conviction of Fred Korematsu was finally overturned, and she later recalled that this experience was pivotal in shaping her legal career. She received her law degree from UCLA, thereafter moving to Chicago where she began her professional career as a commercial litigator with the law firm of Sidley and Austin before serving as a negotiator with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Judge Otaka spearheaded a campaign in 1989 to have a Cook County judge removed from the bench after he launched a racist rant against the Japanese in his courtroom. Due to her efforts, Gerald Murphy failed to gain judicial retention at the next election. She later helped Lynne Kawamoto become appointed as the county's first Asian American associate judge. Judge Otaka was elected as a Cook County judge in 2002 and won retention by voters in 2008.
Bill Yoshino, Midwest Regional Director for the JACL, who was a friend and neighbor, stated: "The Japanese American Citizens League is deeply saddened at the passing of Sandra Otaka. Sandra was a dear friend to the Asian American community. She instinctively cared about fairness and justice in issues affecting our community. The high regard in which Sandra was held, the strong voice she provided, and the good deeds she accomplished did much to advance the cause of all Asian Americans. We offer condolences to her son, Jeffrey, and to the entire Otaka Family."