By GWEN MURANAKA, Rafu Senior Editor
On Nov. 6, the West Justice Center in Westminster was renamed in honor of Justice Stephen Kosaku Tamura, whose life was a series of groundbreaking firsts.
Orange County Superior Court Judge Kirk Nakamura, who spearheaded the renaming of the justice center, presided over the brief ceremony, broadcast live online. Nakamura, presiding judge of Orange County Superior Court, is only the second Japanese American to hold this position.
The first was Tamura.
“This is an auspicious occasion to rename our Justice Center in honor of Stephen K. Tamura. Stephen Tamura is a legal icon, not only in the county of Orange and California, but nationwide,” Nakamura stated.
Tamura was the first Asian American attorney in Orange County, the first Asian American to serve as county counsel in Orange County, the first Asian American Superior Court judge and presiding judge in Orange County, and the first Asian American justice on an appellate court in the continental United States.
During his time on the Appellate Court, he also served as justice pro tempore until his retirement.
The Tamura Justice Center handles traffic, minor offenses, and criminal cases.
Tamura was a descendant of one of the pioneering Japanese American families in Orange County and a member of the Wintersburg Mission. During World War II, he provided legal counsel to fellow incarcerees at the Poston camp in Arizona. He and his wife Kay eventually were transferred from Poston to the Amache Relocation Center in Colorado, where their first child was born.
In keeping with the War Relocation Authority’s resettlement program, the couple took up residence in Cambridge, Mass., where Tamura received his LLM degree from Harvard Law School. In 1945, Tamura was drafted and served in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team.
“He is a true trailblazer in every sense of the word,” Nakamura said.
“Beyond that we have to recognize that he went through a tremendous number of hardships to get to where he was. He was interned during the Second World War with 110,000 Japanese Americans without any trial or loyalty examination. He ultimately was drafted and performed admirably in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, which is the most highly decorated military unit for its size and time of service in U.S. military history. He is a true hero and very much deserves this honor.”
Daughter Susan Tamura Kawaichi attended the ceremony. Also in attendance were Ellyn Iwata and L. Kurtis Nakagawa, members of the ad hoc committee formed in April 2019 to work on the naming change.
Tamura’s name was submitted by Orange County community members to the Judicial Council of California, which owns and oversees all court facilities throughout the state. Tamura himself was a member of the Judicial Council from 1979 to 1981. He passed away in 1982.
Other committee members included Dr. Arthur Hansen, Dr. Kristine Dennehy, Norio Uyematsu, Mary Urashima and Randy Tamura.
Offering congratulatory remarks were State Sen. Tom Umberg, Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer and Supervisor Andrew Do.
In a recorded statement, Kawaichi thanked everyone involved in the dedication and expressed regret that her mother Kazuko Kay Tamura and younger brother Jeffrey were not alive to share in the moment. Kawaichi read some thoughts prepared by her brother John on the concept of “law and order.” She noted that Tamura had once held famed author Truman Capote in contempt of court, which led Capote to refer to Tamura as the “hanging judge” in Santa Ana.
“The immediate miseries of society, our father believed, get set right by law and order. Our father also believed that people are free to effect changes in laws and to revise the status quo to make their voices heard,” Kawaichi stated.
“But I think he saw a courthouse as a kind of sanctuary, where voices are heard behind closed doors but in open discourse … People who enter this courthouse may have little or no idea who Stephen K. Tamura was and the journey he made to have a courthouse named for him. But we hope that they will know that our father knew the journey was well worth it and he would be extremely grateful and humbled by the honor you have bestowed upon him.”