Hon. Akemi Arakaki '98: A Team Player On and Off the Bench
The Hon. Akemi Arakaki sees an unlikely parallel between two of her passions: basketball and the law.
“I’m four-foot-nine – the most unlikely person to ever be successful on a basketball court or a court of law,” she said. “But if you work really hard at something you love, you can be successful. I have a lot of tenacity, and I’m scrappy. In both courts, I had to work really hard to become good.”
She has found that her philosophy applies to the bench as well as the bar. “As an advocate, you get caught up in your case; you’re trying to convince people you’re right even if you’re not,” she said. “As judge, you get to consider all the arguments and all the law, and bring an unbiased opinion to a situation. It’s challenging; we all have to check ourselves now and again and make sure we’re looking at each case and the law with fresh eyes.”
Appointed to the California Superior Court, Los Angeles County bench in 2010 by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger after more than 10 years as a public defender, Arakaki has continued to grow in her transition from litigator to adjudicator. Now in Antelope Valley and removed from the peer group she cultivated in Eastlake Juvenile Court, she has found the new setting liberating. “I was able to define myself as a judge without the baggage,” she said. In her role as judge, she handles felony preliminary hearings in cases ranging from petty theft with priors to rapes and murders.
Arakaki plays basketball three times a week. Her favorite pastime is a carry-over from her law school days, when she played pick-up games with fellow members of the Asian Pacific American Law Student Association, an organization she led as president. At the same time, she was honing her trial skills in an entirely different court as a student in the Hobbs District Attorney Clinic, which she credits with giving her practical skills.
“Professor Hobbs really trained young people to be litigators, to be comfortable in the courtroom and to feel confident in the skills we were learning,” she said. “It was no longer theory; it was putting everything we learned in the classroom to practice. I actually tried two cases and did two preliminary hearings before I finished my time there.”
Raised in a family of teachers, Arakaki felt called to help kids from an early age. Growing up, her friends had brushes with police. After considering a career as an educator or social worker, she centered on the law. Early on, she had a strong desire to become a juvenile public defender. “I was a kid who got into some trouble, and I had a lot of friends who got into trouble and ended up in the delinquency system,” she said.
Some of Arakaki’s most rewarding memories as a deputy public defender in the Los Angeles County Public Defender’s Office stem from her time working at Eastlake Juvenile Court. She recalled spending a year and a half on the case of a female youth charged with multiple counts of kidnapping and false imprisonment. Arakaki and her team ultimately succeeded in securing the girl’s release from state educational placement. “It’s a huge feeling,” Arakaki said. “As a practitioner, you have to remember it’s the small victories. You can’t just look at your track record by wins and losses.”
Prior to serving in the public defender’s office, Arakaki worked as an attorney for the Law Offices of Steve Escovar, a former public defender she opposed while prosecuting a case as a student in the Hobbs Clinic. Impressed by her trial work, he told her to call him when she graduated. She did, and the rest is history.
Outside of the courtroom, Arakaki has had a full plate of civic involvement. She was president of the Japanese American Bar Association, and she sits on the board of the Little Tokyo Service Center, a Community Development Corporation.
Arakaki credits Loyola Law School with giving her the skills necessary to excel on the bench. “I was in the best section,” she said, naming her list of first-year professors: Linda Beres; David Burcham ’84, president, Loyola Marymount University; Dean Victor Gold; and Chris May.
“My time at Loyola was three of the most rewarding years of my life,” she said. “I really enjoyed law school. I got to meet and work with wonderful people. I’m still friends with them. I really believe Loyola trains true practitioners of the law. It’s a great place to learn to be a lawyer, and it prepared me to be a judge.”