The Honorable Kathleen Akao Superior Court Judge, died unexpectedly at Dominican Hospital on Sunday, November 27, due to heart failure following a biopsy procedure. She was 57. Her passing brought to a premature and sudden end the exemplary career of a woman much admired as a jurist and widely recognized as a pioneer in her field. She was this country's first judge of Asian American ancestry, and the first woman to serve as Presiding judge, a post she had held since 2003.
She was born in Long Beach in 1948. During World War Two, her father had served in Europe with the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, while her mother was interned at Manzanar in the high desert east of the Sierra Nevada range. In 1971 she received a B.A. in English from San Jose State University, then went on to Santa Clara University. Receiving her law degree in 1981, she was admitted to the California Bar in 1982. During and after her years in law school she served as President of the Asian Law Students Association, as Staff Attorney with San Jose's Asian Law Alliance, often working closely with recent immigrants from Cambodia and Vietnam, and also worked with the State Bar's Subcommittee on Redress, researching Americans interned during the war.
In 1982 she went into private practice in San Jose, then in 1985-1986 worked as Deputy Public Defender for Santa Clara County. In 1986, she came to Santa Cruz as Assistant County Counsel, a position she held until 1994 when, in a dramatic election campaign, she challenged and unseated incumbent judge George Kovacavich. The post had been vacant until Governor Pete Wilson passed over Akao, viewed by many as the top candidate, to appoint Kovacavich. Her victory marked the first time an Asian American attorney in California had been elected rather than appointed as a Superior Court Judge. And the first time a Santa Cruz County sitting judge had been defeated in an election.
During her eleven years on the bench, she took a special interest in family law and was a leader in establishing the county's drug court 1999, which combined penalties with treatment programs. She also gave time to the county's Teen Peer Court, where juveniles may have their penalties decided by like-age peers. She was known for her generosity of spirit, her fair and impeccable integrity that she brought to the courtroom and effective blend of tough-mindedness and compassion.
She was preceded in death by her husband, James Akao, who passed away in 1991, her mother Lillian and her sister, Vicki Usuki, all of whom are buried at Santa Cruz Memorial Park. She is survived by a son, Kristoffer, of Hawaii, her father, Tokio Katayama, of Oxnard; three brothers, Danny Katayama, of San Jose, Robert Katayama of Sacramento, David Katayama of Oxnard; a niece Kimiko Usuki; three nephews, Brett Usuki, Wesley and Aaron Katayama; and numerous aunts, uncles and cousins.
A memorial service to celebrate Kathleen's life and work will be held on Saturday, December 3, at 11 a.m. at Cabrillo College Theatre, 6500 Soquel Drive, Aptos. A reception will follow at the Sesnon House, across Soquel Drive. An open visitation for family and friends will be held at Santa Cruz Memorial Mission Chapel, 1927 Ocean Street Extension, on Friday December 2 from 3 p.m. - 8 p.m. Contributions in Kathleen's memory may be made to CASA Court Appointed Special Advocate, The Boys and Girls Club of Santa Cruz and the American Cancer Society.