Denny Chin ’75
New York, NY
A federal judge in the Southern District of New York, the oldest federal court in the country, Denny Chin recalls the summer after his first year of law school when he worked as an intern for a federal judge in the same court. “In his courtroom, I saw justice in action,” says Chin, “and I knew then that I had made the right decision to go into the law. I knew also that I wanted to come back someday to be a judge myself.”
And indeed Chin did just that. In 1994 President Clinton appointed him to the Southern District of New York, making him “the first Asian American to be appointed a United States District Judge outside of California and Hawaii,” says Chin. “Almost thirteen years later, I am still the only one.”
Since becoming a judge, Chin has presided over a range of civil and criminal cases, several of which have catapulted his name into headline news. And not all of the attention has been friendly, he says. After his decision on a challenge to Megan’s Law, for example, the Guardian Angels demonstrated outside his home. And when he heard a challenge to the City of New York’s decision to deny a permit for the Million Youth March, even his parents lobbied him. “My parents speak virtually no English and they are completely apolitical. Yet they each telephoned me, separately, saying, ‘You’re not going to give them a permit, are you?’” recalls Chin.
“In some ways,” says Chin, “being a judge is easier than being a lawyer. I do not have to worry about winning or losing or dealing with clients or getting paid. But ultimately, of course, it is more difficult—I am not just advocating a position; I have to worry about getting it right.”
Born in Hong Kong, Chin came to the U.S. with his parents when he was two years old. His grandfather had worked as a waiter in Chinatown for many years, and it was through his help that Chin’s immediate family was able to immigrate. “My mother worked as a seamstress in Chinatown garment factories and my father worked as a cook in Chinese restaurants,” recalls Chin, who graduated Magna Cum Laude from Princeton in 1975. After Princeton Chin attended Fordham Law School where he has been an adjunct legal writing professor for 20 years.
Following law school and a clerkship for the same judge with whom he had interned, Chin spent two years at the New York firm Davis Polk & Wardwell. In 1982 he became an Assistant U.S. Attorney in the Southern District of New York, and then returned to private practice in 1986—this time as a partner in his own small firm. In 1990 he joined a New York labor and employment law firm. In 1994, he returned to the court that had so inspired him years earlier.
Chin has published extensively and has been recognized frequently for his work. In 2006 he received the Sanctuary for Families’ Abely Award for Leading Women and Children to Safety and the Fordham Law School Alumni Association’s Medal of Achievement; in 2005 he was the recipient of the Asian American Justice Center’s Distinguished Service Award and the NYS Division of Human Rights Lifetime Achievement Award.
Chin has served on the boards of many organizations, including the Asian American Bar Association of New York, Care for the Homeless, the Prospect Park Environmental Center, and the NYC Bar Association, to name only a few. Chin is a member of the Asian American Alumni Association and has served for the last five years on his local Princeton Alumni Schools Committee. And now that his son has joined Chin and his wife in the ranks of Princeton alumni, the connection to the University has grown even stronger. “I think there is more I can do,” says Chin, “and I look forward to other ways to contribute.