From the Schoolhouse to the Courthouse: Judge Denny Chin’s Journey From a Student at Stuyvesant to the Appellate Bench

Profile on Stuyvesant alum and judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, Judge Denny Chin.

Reading Time: 7 minutes

“I, Denny Chin, do solemnly swear that I will administer justice without respect to persons, and do equal right to the poor and to the rich and that I will faithfully and impartially discharge and perform all the duties incumbent upon me as under the Constitution and laws of the United States. So help me God.” When Stuyvesant alum Judge Denny Chin (‘71) swore these words on April 26, 2010, he became the only active Asian-American judge on the federal bench. Judge Chin was appointed to the Second Circuit, one of the 13 United States Court of Appeals, after serving on the bench in the Southern District of New York for 15 years. But before Judge Chin achieved such high legal status, he went through many of the same experiences many students at Stuyvesant have.

Judge Chin was born in Hong Kong in 1954 but joined his grandfather in America at the age of two, in 1956. Living in Hell’s Kitchen in midtown Manhattan, a primarily Irish neighborhood, was not easy for the Chin family. “Life was challenging,” Judge Chin recollected. My parents did not have very much money; my father was a cook [and] my mother was a seamstress. We had five children and my parents living in a one-bedroom apartment. I went to school in the public schools in the neighborhood.” As a child, Judge Chin spent a large amount of time studying, as he was “pushed” by his parents, but also behaved like a kid. He played sports, including stickball and softball, and spent hours reading in the public library close to his apartment.

All this reading and studying paid off for Judge Chin, when he took the SHSAT and was accepted into Stuyvesant High School in 1967 without any preparatory courses or study materials. In some senses, the Stuyvesant that Judge Chin had attended was very different from our own. For one, Stuyvesant was located on the East Side. Judge Chin was part of an all-male graduating class (the last one, in fact), and Asian-Americans made up only seven percent of his class. Today, Asian-Americans make up more than 10 times this amount (74 percent) of the students at Stuyvesant. Furthermore, the breakdown among the Asian-Americans at Stuyvesant has changed dramatically: “Of the 40 Asian-Americans, all but one was Chinese. There was one Japanese-American student. There were no Koreans,” Judge Chin described. Now, more diversity is seen within the umbrella term of Asian.

Despite differences in geography and student diversity, Judge Chin’s experience at Stuyvesant was very similar to our own. Judge Chin played as the defensive end on the football team and described himself as “very much part of the team and the sports culture,” he said. His love for athletics has carried into his adult years; signed basketballs, tickets to Princeton Tigers basketball games, and bobbleheads are scattered around his office, with a wall-mounted basketball hoop that keeps the door to one of his closets ajar.

Like many of us, Judge Chin sometimes struggled with the academic side of Stuyvesant: in his senior year, he received a 23 on his Advanced Calculus final, but fortunately retook it and passed, and was allowed to graduate. Judge Chin’s love for writing, a trait that he temporarily lost during his college years, also began at Stuyvesant with his English and history classes.

After graduating from Stuyvesant, Judge Chin attended Princeton University. There, he majored in psychology. Looking back on this decision, Judge Chin is not sure if he would choose the same major again. He explained, “By the time I graduated I really did not know what to do with myself. If I had to do it over again, I probably would major in something else. [...] I think I would have enjoyed history and English more.” But Judge Chin was able to embrace his interest in the humanities through The Daily Princetonian, the school newspaper, of which he eventually became the managing editor.

Judge Chin was not certain what field he wanted to pursue as a career, so like many college graduates, he entered law school. “I didn’t know what to do with myself, and so I decided to go to law school to delay making a hard decision.” Judge Chin quickly realized that this was the best decision he could have made. He loved his experience as an intern for Judge Henry Worker the summer after his first year of law school. “I loved it. I knew then, after only one summer, that I had made the right decision and that the law was for me,” Judge Chin said. “I enjoyed it so much, that first summer, that I decided that I would come back one day and be a judge. I loved the excitement of the courtroom, being on trial, being able to participate in the administration of justice.”

Judge Chin graduated from Fordham University School of Law in Manhattan in 1978, where he was the Managing Editor of The Fordham Law Review. Following law school, Judge Chin worked in many different positions. He recounted, “I was a law clerk for Judge Worker for two years, and then I worked at a big law firm for two years, and then I went to the United States Attorney’s Office for about four years.” These various positions exposed Judge Chin to many different fields, including everything from corporations to criminal trials.

Next, Judge Chin did something very unusual: he started his own law firm with two colleagues. Campbell, Patrick & Chin was a general litigation boutique. Judge Chin explained, “The idea was we would go to court and take on different types of cases: commercial cases, we did some immigration work, some environmental work.” But generating business and dealing with the business side of practicing law was very difficult, so after four years, Judge Chin joined another law firm, where he specialized in labor and employment law.

President Bill Clinton nominated Judge Chin as a judge for the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York in 1994. During his tenure as a district judge, Judge Chin covered a number of high-profile cases, both criminal, like the Bernie Madoff case (2009), and civil.

“In criminal [trials], there is more drama and there is more at stake,” he described. “It is important because it goes to the heart of the administration of justice, which is enforcing the laws.” Because of this, Judge Chin thinks that criminal trials can create the most difficult decisions. One criminal case that stands out to him was about the mother of five children, who was also a caretaker for her sister because both their parents were gone. This woman was accused of being an accessory to a bank robbery. Judge Chin had to grapple with difficult questions—if the woman is sent to jail, will the kids be forced into foster care? What will happen to her sister?

Civil cases can be difficult in other senses. Judge Chin explained, “Most of the time [in criminal cases], the law is fairly well-settled and it is more about applying the law. The civil side, the law is constantly evolving. A good example would be copyright laws. They were passed many years ago, but we have to apply them now to new technology, to the cloud, to social media. [...] Applying these long-standing legal concepts to modern technology is challenging, but fun.”

Civil cases can be particularly difficult when they deal with emotions. For example, Judge Chin presided over a property case in which a famous ballet dancer, Rudolf Nureyev, had left most of his property to a dance foundation in his will. But family members argued that Nureyev was not in a sound mental health state when he wrote his will due to his recent diagnosis of AIDS. Judge Chin heard testimony about his physical and mental state when he was sick and dying.

In 2009, after serving as a district judge for 16 years, Judge Chin was nominated by President Barack Obama to the Second Court of Appeals in 2010. He was approved unanimously with a 98-0 vote by the United States Senate in April of 2010. Judge Chin became the only active Asian-American on the federal bench, and today is one of four active Asian-American judges on the Court of Appeals.

Life as a judge on the Court of Appeals is very different from that of a District Judge. Judge Chin described, “A lot of the time [as a District Judge] you would be on trial, either on a jury trial or a nonjury trial. A lot of the time you are involved in case management.” He was also used to “being on [his] own” and making independent decisions.

As an appellate judge, Judge Chin works at the Thurgood Marshall U.S. Courthouse. In fact, he works in Thurgood Marshall’s exact office and keeps Marshall's dictionary right next to a painting of himself presiding over the Madoff case. One major difference between the position of a District Judge and that of an appellate judge is that as an appellate judge, decisions are made in groups of three. This transition was both difficult and gratifying for Judge Chin; the challenge of reaching a compromise yielded a stronger result due to the input of his colleagues. Finally, as an appellate court judge, much more time is spent reading over briefs. There are not even any trials or witnesses in the appellate court, just oral arguments by the lawyers.

Judge Chin has reached great heights over the course of his career as a lawyer and later a judge. For any Stuyvesant student, whether he or she has or lacks an interest in law, Chin simply suggests to work hard and to “keep an open mind as you head off to college,” he said. After all, he reminded, “I had no idea when I went to Princeton that someday I would go into the law.”