On Nov. 7, the U.S. Senate confirmed President Joe Biden’s nomination of Magistrate Judge Kenly Kiya Kato to serve as a federal district judge for the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California. 

Kenly Kiya Kato

Kato was confirmed 51-46 in the Democratic-led Senate with no Republican support nearly two years after she was nominated.

She will preside over matters in Riverside in the court’s Eastern Division.

Kato has been a magistrate judge for the Central District of California since 2014, sitting in the court’s Eastern Division. As a magistrate judge, she has maintained a civil and criminal docket that includes state and federal habeas petitions, civil rights matters where the plaintiff is not represented by counsel, Social Security disability appeals, discovery proceedings and settlement conferences in civil cases, trial and disposition of select civil cases upon consent of the parties, preliminary proceedings in felony matters, and all proceedings in misdemeanor matters upon consent of the parties. 

In addition to her civil and criminal docket, Kato is a member of the court’s CASA (Conviction and Sentence Alternatives Program) and STAR (Substance Abuse Treatment and Reentry Program) teams. CASA and STAR are collaborative courts where teams composed of judicial officers, pretrial and probation officers, federal prosecutors and federal public defenders work together to address the underlying issues and needs of individuals charged with federal crimes. 

Both programs offer a pathway for offenders to attain rehabilitation and become contributing members of the community and are models for criminal justice reform.   

Prior to her appointment as a magistrate judge, from 2004 to 2014, Kato maintained her own private practice focused primarily on federal criminal defense work. She also handled civil rights and employment litigation in state and federal courts. 

In addition, Kato was also an attorney on the court’s Criminal Justice Act panel, and assisted the court as a member of the Merit Selection Panel and Attorney Discipline Committee.

Before entering private practice, from 1997 to 2003, Kato served in the Federal Public Defender’s Office for the Central District of California. As a deputy federal public defender, she represented hundreds of clients charged with a broad range of federal offenses. She handled all aspects of criminal proceedings, including arraignments, motion hearings, bench and jury trials, and sentencing hearings. 

She also briefed and argued cases before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

Throughout her career, Kato has been involved in several bar and judges’ associations, including the Federal Bar Association, in which she serves as a board member, and the Asian Pacific American Lawyers of the Inland Empire, which awarded her the Justice Stephen K. Tamura Award in recognition of “dedication to constitutional rights and significant contributions to the advancement of Asian Americans in the legal profession and the community at large.”

Kato is a Los Angeles native whose parents were among the thousands of Japanese Americans incarcerated during World War II. She received her Bachelor of Arts degree, summa cum laude, from UCLA in 1993, and her Juris Doctor degree, cum laude, from Harvard Law School in 1996. Following law school, she clerked for U.S. District Judge Robert M. Takasugi of the Central District of California.

Kato — the first Japanese American woman and the third AAPI woman to serve as a federal district court judge in the Central District of California — fills the vacancy that arose when District Judge Beverly Reid O’Connell passed away in October 2017. Including the appointment of Kato, the district has 28 authorized Article III judgeships, two of which are currently unfilled. 

The Central District of California is composed of the counties of Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, Ventura, Santa Barbara, and San Luis Obispo. It serves more than 19.3 million people, nearly half the population of California.

Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus (CAPAC) Chair Rep. Judy Chu (D-Pasadena) issued the following statement: “I’m overjoyed to congratulate Judge Kenly Kiya Kato on her confirmation to the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California. Her commitment to public service and her demonstrated expertise in the law, including her time as a public defender, make her eminently qualified for this role, and she will be a great asset to our judicial system.

“I appreciate President Biden’s continued efforts to nominate highly qualified and diverse candidates to fill federal judicial vacancies and represent the diversity of our nation and I thank Senate Majority Leader (Chuck) Schumer for his leadership on this confirmation today.”

“We are delighted that Judge Kato will now be a district judge of this court,” Chief Judge Philip S. Gutierrez of the Central District of California said in a statement. “Judge Kato has been an exceptional magistrate judge for many years, approaching each case with intelligence, integrity and compassion. She will undoubtedly bring the same skills and qualities to the bench as a district judge, and we are lucky to continue to have her as a colleague.”

On Nov. 9, Mónica Ramírez Almadani, a Los Angeles-born immigrant rights attorney who led cases against the immigration policies of former President Donald Trump, was confirmed to a seat on the Central District of California bench.

“We are glad to see the Senate confirm Judge Kato and Ms. Ramírez Almadani, who have demonstrated their unwavering commitment to service and equal justice time and time again and hold strong ties to the Los Angeles legal community,” Sens. Alex Padilla and Laphonza Butler (both D-Calif.) said in a statement.

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