Hon. Jinsook Ohta: Community Volunteer, Public Servant, Judicial Trailblazer
By: Rebecca G. Church, San Diego FBA Immediate Past President
On December 27, 2021, the Honorable Jinsook Ohta received her commission as U.S. District Judge for the Southern District of California—becoming the first Asian Pacific American female judge on the District Court. Her historic service is informed by her experience immigrating to the United States at a young age, becoming a community volunteer, and advocating for consumer victims in California.
Jinsook Ohta was born in Korea and immigrated to the United States at age six. She grew up in the Bronx and Yonkers, New York attending economically underprivileged public schools. She credits a few particularly dedicated teachers, who went above and beyond, with cultivating her lifelong love of learning. Although she did not speak English, she soon became a prolific reader, a passion that continues to this day. Most importantly, she credits her parents for guiding her through their examples of uncomplaining hard work and courage in facing all the challenges that immigrants confront on a daily basis. With this foundation, Judge Ohta graduated from high school as valedictorian and set her sights on Yale University.
For Judge Ohta, higher education was only possible through a generous financial aid package comprised of grants, student loans, and work study programs. She is grateful for Yale University’s role in removing the financial structural barriers to her success. In keeping with her early love of reading, Judge Ohta majored in English and wrote about her favorite author, Jane Austen, for her senior thesis. During college, she also volunteered her time providing one-on-one adult literacy tutoring, leading children’s reading programs at community health clinics to promote early literacy, and tutoring children in New Haven public schools. She was called to this service because she experienced firsthand the inequality gap in education and the importance of community service efforts to bridge that gap. She continued tutoring and mentoring youth and adults for many years, including as an attorney.
After college, Judge Ohta pursued a law degree at New York University School of Law on a merit-based, full tuition scholarship. She is grateful that she could pursue her law degree while incurring less debt; this opportunity enabled her to enter public service earlier in her career than would have been possible otherwise. During law school, Judge Ohta participated in a project designed to aid survivors of domestic violence seek divorce in the state of New York. This was her first exposure to working with at-risk clients, and she grew as an attorney by personally engaging with vulnerable women to provide legal assistance and support.
Judge Ohta’s first post-doctorate position was perhaps her most formative. She became a judicial law clerk for the Honorable Barry Ted Moskowitz, U.S. District Judge for the Southern District of California. Observing Judge Moskowitz interact with an unrepresented party in an employment discrimination matter, with patience and respect, shaped her perspective on how the legal system needs to treat pro se litigants to this day. She also observed how Judge Moskowitz approaches each case and court order with the utmost rigor and attention to detail, no matter the type of case or the amount in controversy. By showing her how extraordinary the role of a judge can be, Judge Moskowitz planted the seed in her mind that she also may want to be a judge one day.
Following her clerkship, Judge Ohta worked as an associate at O’Melveny & Myers in Los Angeles and Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton in San Diego. She benefitted from expert advocacy training by exceptional professionals. When she and her spouse were ready to start a family, she explored other career options for family and work balance, including serving as a Visiting Assistant Professor of Law at Thomas Jefferson School of Law and returning to clerk for Judge Moskowitz for a second year. After these experiences, she took almost three years away from her legal career to work as a stay-at-home parent.
When Judge Ohta was ready to return to a full-time legal career, she joined the Consumer Protection section of the California Attorney General’s Office in 2011, first as a Deputy Attorney General and later as a Supervising Deputy Attorney General. In these positions, she was privileged to serve the public while pursuing her passion for helping vulnerable populations. The ensuing decade of public service was highly rewarding and productive. Judge Ohta served as a lead attorney on several multi-state investigations and high-profile cases, such as California v. Johnson & Johnson, No. 37-2016-00017229-CU-MC-CTL, Superior Court of the State of California (San Diego) (securing a $344 million judgment against Johnson & Johnson for misrepresenting the risks of vaginal-mesh implants to consumers in California), and United States, California, et al. v. Dish Network LLC, 256 F. Supp. 3d 810 (C.D. Ill. 2017) (securing a $280 million judgment against Dish Network for violating federal and state Do-Not-Call laws), largely affirmed by United States v. Dish Network LLC, 954 F.3d 970 (7th Cir. 2020).
In December 2020, Judge Ohta was appointed to Judge of the Superior Court of California, County of San Diego. She served in the Family Law Division, where she learned to juggle a high-volume docket while making important decisions impacting domestic violence victims and children and families. Shortly after she became a Superior Court Judge, she applied to the District Court, and was nominated to fill the seat previously vacated by her mentor, Judge Moskowitz, as he moved to senior status. Judge Ohta is the first Asian Pacific American woman to serve as an Article III judge in the Southern District of California. She also is the first judicial law clerk of the Southern District of California to become a District Judge in the same court.
Advice for Attorneys
Judge Ohta encourages attorneys to be brave about pursuing your aspirations: she advises, “Don’t tell yourself ‘no’.” She had been on the Superior Court bench for less than a month when she had the opportunity to apply to become a U.S. District Judge. She felt she had something to offer the federal court, so she applied despite the less-than-ideal timing.
She also encourages attorneys to find ways to serve their community that are true to their personal background and interests: “To serve others out of passion or a deep sense of gratitude is one of the most powerful and meaningful acts that we are capable of.” Judge Ohta feels that she has a lot to pay forward for the opportunities that she has been given, and she has tried to live her life in ways that acknowledge that debt. Judge Ohta served on the Board of Directors for the Lawyers Club of San Diego and for a San Diego charter school in an underserved San Diego community, as part of that effort.