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Solicitor General Noel Francisco Delivers Remarks at the Department of Justice Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month Program


Washington, DC
United States

Remarks as prepared for delivery

Jesse, thank you for that generous introduction.  And thank you to Richard Toscano and his team, the DOJ Pan Asia Association, and all involved in planning this terrific event.     

It is an honor to join you in marking the 40th anniversary of the federal government’s celebration of Asian American and Pacific Islander heritage.  In 1978, Congress passed and President Jimmy Carter signed a joint resolution designating a week in May as “Asian/Pacific American Heritage Week,” and calling “upon the people of the United States, to observe such week with appropriate ceremonies and activities.”  The idea was a success.  And because everything in the federal government has a tendency to grow, Congress and President George H.W. Bush agreed to expand Asian/Pacific American Heritage Week into Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month.  The joint resolution observed that May was a fitting month because the first Japanese immigrants arrived in the United States in May 1843 and the transcontinental railroad — which was built largely by Chinese immigrants — was completed in May 1869.  Every President since then has issued a proclamation celebrating May as Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. 

A few weeks ago, President Trump issued a proclamation honoring the “more than 20 million Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders who call America home” and who “have helped strengthen our communities, industries, Armed Forces, national security, and institutions of governance … [t]hrough their industriousness and love of country.”  In particular, he recognized Kalpana Chawla, the first Indian American woman to fly in space, who served courageously in the space program until the loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia 15 years ago, and Susan Ahn Cuddy, the first Asian-American woman to join the United States Navy, who served as a code breaker and an aerial gunnery officer during World War II.

My Heritage

As I’m sure is true for many of you, the Asian American or Pacific Islander who inspired me most is a member of my family.  My father, Nemesio Maharice Francisco, was born and raised in the Philippines.  I’d like to tell you three stories about him—stories that will likely echo those that many of you could tell about your own families.

The first is a story of adversity.  My father was born in 1935, and grew up amidst the ravage of World War II.  At that time, the Philippines was a commonwealth, still under the formal control of the United States but transitioning toward independence.  Within hours of the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Philippines was also attacked.  As a very young boy, my father was driven from his home by invading soldiers.  He once told me how, for days, he was forced to live in the remnants of a bombed out tank.  My father’s family pooled all of their resources to send him—the youngest son—to medical school and, eventually, to the United States, where he met my mother.  That’s, of course, where my story began.  And isn’t that the story of many of us?  We came here on the shoulders of immigrants who had the courage to cross oceans in search of a better life.

The second is a story about politics — in the best sense of that word.  I remember my father and mother having an argument about a political donation that my father made to President Reagan’s re-election campaign.  My mother learned about it when my father got the perfunctory thank-you note in the mail along with the auto-penned photograph of the President.  Now, my mother had grown up in a Teamsters household, but I don’t think she was objecting to my father’s support for President Reagan.  She just couldn’t believe that he had wasted so much money on a campaign contribution.  But my father was so proud of that auto-penned photo.  And it was only many years later that I began to understand why.  It was because he had come to understand that he was an American, and he was actively participating in our democratic process.

The third story occurred shortly before my father’s death in 1989.  My father had come to this country with a group of Filipino doctors many years earlier, and he was now dying of lung cancer.  The other Filipino doctors and their families — known to me as my “aunties, uncles, and cousins” — came to say goodbye.  And what struck me was how all of my “cousins” and I looked alike.  And it wasn’t our jet black hair and brown skin.  Rather, in the fashion of the time, all of us boys had pony tails and earrings.  I don’t think our parents liked it all that much.  But what was clear was how thoroughly American all of us were, just one generation later.

To me, these three stories about my father tell a distinctly American story.  And I suspect many of you in this room could tell similar tales.  No matter what other divisions may exist in our society, these stories unite us as Americans.

Trailblazers in Public Service

All of us here are also united by our choice to work in public service, and we owe a debt of gratitude to our forebears who blazed the trail for us in this field.

I think, for example, of Herbert Choy, who was born to Korean immigrant parents in Hawaii in 1916.  As a young teenager, he worked long days at a pineapple processing plant for twelve-and-a-half cents an hour.  He dreamed of being a lawyer, even though at that time no Korean American had ever become a member of the bar.  Through his hard work, he earned admission to Harvard Law School, graduated in the spring of 1941, and became the first Korean American bar member in November of that year. 

When Pearl Harbor was attacked in December, he volunteered for the United States Army the next day.  He served six years in the JAG Corps, including deployments to Japan and Korea.  When he returned home, he went into private practice, served as Attorney General of the Hawaii Territory, and was appointed in 1971 by President Nixon to fill Hawaii’s first seat on the Ninth Circuit.  That made him the first Asian American to serve as a federal judge, a role he filled with distinction for 33 years until his death in 2004. 

One of his first law clerks was Richard Clifton, who later became the second Hawaiian to serve on the Ninth Circuit.  Judge Clifton said that Judge Choy taught him “to render judgments without being judgmental … to disagree without being disagreeable.  He understood that the law is there for the entire community and that it should be administered fairly.”  That is an inspiring legacy for us all.

Others blazed the trail into public service in different ways.  After Pearl Harbor, Japanese Americans in the military were forced to surrender their weapons, and many were sent with their families to internment camps.  Eventually, President Roosevelt — against the advice of the Army — agreed to authorize one combat team of Japanese American volunteers.  “Americanism,” he said, “is a matter of the mind and heart; Americanism is not, and never was, a matter of race or ancestry.”  The 442nd Regimental Combat Team went on to become, by some measures, the most decorated unit in the history of the United States military.  When the famous Lost Battalion of Texas was surrounded by enemy forces in the mountains of France, the 442nd battalion took 800 casualties to rescue them — a mission that later led the Governor of Texas to name every man in the unit any honorary Texan.  By the end of the war, the soldiers of this single battalion had earned an astonishing 21 Medals of Honor.  In 1946, a battalion that was almost never formed because of racial prejudice was personally welcomed home by President Harry Truman.

The men of the 442nd — and other Asian Pacific Americans who volunteered during the war — continued to serve, even during peace.  One member of the unit was Lieutenant Daniel Inouye, who was severely wounded taking out two enemy machine gun nests in Italy.  He had always wanted to be a surgeon, but his wounds cost him one of his arms.   He was inspired to take a different path by a fellow wounded soldier that he met in a military hospital.  That soldier told him he planned to recover, go to law school, and then run for Congress in his home state of Kansas.  Inouye did the same thing in Hawaii.  Just over a decade later, Daniel Inouye shook hands on the floor of the Senate with his fellow soldier and senator, a man named Bob Dole. 

Inspiring Progress in Public Service and the Law

Thanks to pioneers like Judge Choy and Senator Inouye, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have come a long way in American public life, and that progress continues.  It should inspire us all that America’s face to the world — our ambassador at the United Nations — is a brilliant and strong Indian American woman, Nikki Haley.  The mighty Pacific force of the United States Navy, the fleet that liberated my father in the Philippines, is now commanded by Harry Harris — the first Japanese American Admiral in the Navy.  And President Trump recently nominated Admiral Harris to serve as United States Ambassador to South Korea, where he will play a key role in the President’s effort to address the difficult issues in the Korean Peninsula.

Of particular importance to us at the Department of Justice, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have made great strides in the law.  Over the past 30 years, the number of Asian American law students has quadrupled, and over the past 15 years, the number of Asian American lawyers in the United States has doubled.  And I am honored to be the first Asian American or Pacific Islander to represent the United States in the Supreme Court as the Solicitor General. 

But I am certainly not the only one to argue in the Court.  By my count, Asian American or Pacific Islander advocates presented 16 arguments at the Supreme Court this term.   I am not aware of any official statistics, but I think that is very likely a record.  One fact that should make us even prouder is that 15 of those 16 arguments were presented by current or former members of the Justice Department, including former Acting Solicitor General Neal Katyal, former Assistant to the Solicitor General Kannon Shanmugam, former Assistant to the Solicitor General Pratik Shah, and current Assistant to the Solicitor General Fred Liu.  Other DOJ alumni advocates included the Solicitor General and Deputy Solicitor General of the District of Columbia, Todd Kim and Loren Ali-Khan, and Professor Aditya Bamzai of the University of Virginia Law School.

Asian American and Pacific Islander lawyers are also assuming more prominent roles throughout our Department.  The U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia is my dear friend, Jessie Liu — the first Asian American to hold that prestigious position.  Our colleague Robert Hur, who recently served as the principal deputy to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein here at Main Justice, has succeeded the DAG as U.S. Attorney for the District of Maryland.  And B.J. Pak is the first Asian American U.S. Attorney to serve in Georgia, where he leads the important office for the Northern District of Georgia.

Of even more enduring significance, there are now far more Asian American and Pacific Islander federal judges than ever before.  A decade ago, there was only one Asian American federal court of appeals judge:  Judge Atushi Wallace Tashima of the Ninth Circuit.  Today, there are eight.  Four were appointed by President Obama:  Judge Denny Chin of the Second Circuit, a former Assistant United States Attorney, Judge Jacqueline Nguyen of the Ninth Circuit, also a former Assistant United States Attorney , Judge Sri Srinivasan of the D.C. Circuit, a former Assistant and Principal Deputy Solicitor General, and Judge Raymond Chen of the Federal Circuit, a former Solicitor of the Patent and Trademark Office. 

In just over a year, President Trump has appointed another three federal court of appeals judges of Asian American or Pacific Islander descent:  Judge Amul Thapar of the Sixth Circuit, a former United States Attorney for the District of Kentucky and District Judge who was the first South Asian American to sit on an Article III court, Judge James Ho of the Fifth Circuit, a veteran of the Office of Legal Counsel and the Civil Rights Division who immigrated from Taiwan and learned to speak English by watching Sesame Street, and Judge John Nalbandian of the Sixth Circuit, a talented appellate advocate whose mother was born in a Japanese internment camp during World War II.

Our Continuing Mission

All of us can be proud of that progress, but we still have work to do.  Although Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are thriving in American society and are better represented in the institutions of government than ever before, we must continue striving to make our country a place of justice and opportunity for all.  For those of us here at the Department, that means faithfully enforcing the rule of law and ensuring that the promise of freedom that inspired our ancestors to come this country remains real for everyone who calls America home.  It also means continuing to promote diversity broadly defined, including the diversity of viewpoints.  And that doesn’t just mean tolerating the presence or views of others.  It means welcoming civil disagreement, and listening with an open mind.  

As Justice Scalia once put it, “One of the strengths of this great country, one of the reasons we really are a symbol of light and hope for the world, is the way in which people of different faiths, different races, different national origins, have come together and learned — not merely to tolerate one another, because I think that is too stingy a word for what we have achieved — but to respect and love one another.”

It’s hard to top Justice Scalia for rhetorical flourish.  So like the loyal law clerk I once was, I think I’ll let him have the last word.  Thank you for the invitation to join you in celebrating the heritage we share and the country we love.

Updated May 24, 2018