For Mel Red Recana, “going to work” means traveling a few miles from his Los Angeles home to the downtown courthouse, where he sits on the bench as a county judge—and the first Filipino-American judge in the United States.
“What’s critical in any career is that you do what you love,” Mel told the Asian Journal. “I love this job and have been practicing law my whole life.”
Judge Mel Recana was first appointed to the Los Angeles Municipal Court in 1981 and later to the Los Angeles County Superior Court, and has been serving justice as one of several Filipino judges in California for well over 25 years.
But his big promotion from resident to Superior Court judge did not come without the pursuit of hard work, patience, and perseverance—Filipino ideals he learned from his family, growing up in the humble Bicol region of the Philippines.
Soon after his arrival from Manila to the US in 1968, Mel was initially barred from practicing law. He had a law degree from the University of the East in Manila, but it was not the American law degree required to take the exam.
“When I first arrived, there were very few Filipino-American lawyers. The bar community said I could not take the required bar exams in the US, which I thought was ridiculous considering I had a functioning law degree,” Mel recalled. “So I did something about it.”
After temporary work in the railroad industry, he made an appeal about the Bar issue, saying that if he took the same exam in another country and passed, he should also be able to take it in California. Sure enough, the state government changed its rules, allowing the Philippines common law jurisdiction and for Mel to take the California Bar Exam. In 1974, he passed the test with flying colors, and went straight into private practice. As an educated, experienced lawyer, he was appointed deputy district attorney for Los Angeles County, and later in 1981, a presiding judge of the Los Angeles Municipal Court by California Governor Jerry Brown.
“Mr. Brown was looking for a Filipino judge to serve California,” Mel said. “After all, Filipinos are one of the largest immigrant populations in this state, and still growing. At the time, there were only three other Filipino lawyers besides myself—I had recently passed the Bar, was doing my own practice, and [Brown was] looking for qualified Filipino attorneys with experience.”
Among Mel’s many achievements was authoring the Judges’ Sabbatical Leave Law (1992), which allowed him as a qualified judge to take a leave of absence to attend Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, where he received his master’s degree in Public Administration. He became involved in the Municipal Court Judges Association, the California Judges Association, and was President of the California Asian Judges Association. In 2000, Mel was elevated to the Los Angeles Superior Court as a county judge.
“Overall, I’ve been doing this for 34 years—they’re going to have to drag me out of here,” he laughed.
Like father, like son
On July 16, 2015, Governor Jerry Brown appointed 19 new superior court judges around the state, and eight in Los Angeles County. One of them is deputy district attorney Julian Recana, Mel’s son.
The Metropolitan News Enterprise first published the news on July 17, with the headline in bold lettering: “Brown Names 19 Superior Court Judges, Eight in Los Angeles.”
Julian, 45, has proudly followed in his father’s footsteps. Growing up in Los Angeles and after graduating from Loyola High School, he knew he always wanted to be involved in law. A hardworking student, Julian enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in economics in 1992. Six years later, he received his law degree from Loyola Law School, dedicating his life to public service in the courts.
“My dad was always like a coach. While every other kid played baseball and went fishing, I have childhood memories of going into this courtroom with my dad and practicing being a lawyer,” Julian recalled, motioning around the empty courthouse with a smile. “I grew up in this building.”
“I remember after I first got my degree, when I had to practice for preliminary hearings, I sat at the table and my father sat at the witness stand. ‘Go ahead and ask your questions,’ he said. I would make my case, and all of a sudden he would ask a question, then switch roles and say, ‘Objection!’ And then he would change his own hats, asking, ‘What are the grounds, Council?’ And I would start perspiring…and he would always tell me, Julian, you can’t do that on the bench! Don’t give up!”
And Julian never did. As an experienced and seasoned defense lawyer, Julian later joined the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office in 1999, seeking justice for victims of crime and murder. He became involved with various bar associations, including the Philippine American Bar Association (PABA), as a founding officer and assistant secretary. He also served in the Long Beach Courthouse for 11 years, prosecuting murders in the Long Beach and greater Los Angeles area.
To date, Julian has tried 92 jury trials to completion: 83 as felonies, and 13 murders. Most recently, he was assigned to the Hardcore Gang Division, prosecuting violent, gang-related offenses.
In 2014, Julian Recana was honored with the California Journal for Filipino Americans Community Leadership Award, as well as the Association of Deputy District Attorney’s Prosecutor of the Month award for his successful work in a robbery-murder jury trial. Most recently, he received the prestigious National Asian Pacific Islander Prosecutors Association (NAPIPIA)’s “2015 Prosector of the Year.”
But Julian’s greatest reward? His family.
“Aside from being a great lawyer and a new judge and all of that, [Julian] is also a GREAT father,” said his wife, Alexis Recana. “He takes care of our two wonderful daughters, 8-year-old Julia, and Ava, who is 6. He volunteers at their school, takes the kids to practice, does the groceries and laundry—and he even became a ‘choir dad’ and a lead in their school play.”
“We’re best friends,” Alexis gushed, adding that the couple just recently celebrated their 10 year anniversary.
She describes her life with Julian—whom she met when they were both 19 years old at UC Berkeley—as sometimes feeling “like a trial widow,” scheduling family time living in Long Beach around his busy work schedule.
“There’s career and there’s family, and you have to have a good balance of both. Being trailblazers in the community, there’s a level of visibility that, as a family, you’re automatically going to have. We’re both career people; I work in tech. We want to set a good example for our children while still maintaining our professional life,” she said. “And we’ve been so blessed to be able to provide so many opportunities for our children.”
Regular family outings for the Recanas include going to Disneyland, performing (singing and dancing, especially), and going to church. Recently, their daughter Julia was featured in the news for her efforts to raise money for feeding the hungry during Christmastime.
“As a lawyer, especially in the criminal courts, the profession can be very stressful and consuming. Unless you have a family to lean on and spend time with to decompress…I don’t know how you could do this sort of work,” Julian admitted. “I need my family to ground me.”
Julian first applied as a judge in 2011, and his resume, high achievements, and years of experience finally caught the eyes of Governor Brown, who commissioned Julian to the bench in July 2015–34 years after his father was appointed.
Julian dedicates his recent commission as LA County Superior Court judge to his late mother, Emerita Recana, who passed away just days before his judicial appointment interview with Gov. Brown.
“My mom always believed in me,” he smiled. “Both [of] my parents do.”
‘Service for others’
Today, there are over 2,000 judges in the state of California; 11 of them Filipino-American, nine of them in Los Angeles County, and only one father-and-son duo, the Recanas.
“That’s less than 1 percent,” Alexis remarked. “Having such an underrepresentation of Filipino-Americans in this practice, when we are responsible for at least 7 percent of the nation’s population and are active, voting citizens…when you have lawmakers interpreting the law, you want them to be interpreting for the people of the United States. We, as Fil-Ams, are people of the United States. We want trustworthy people with valuable knowledge and experience to be a voice for and represent our underrepresented community.”
Julian agreed, “Frankly, I’m surprised at the notoriety in our culture. When you look back on it, it is really special. By being visible, it is the hope that people who finish their undergraduate degrees and follow their dreams of going to law school, that from there they join a bar association or find something in the law profession to be involved with, practice trials with their mentors, and see if they have what it takes.”
“The thing about me is that growing up, I always had a mentor and role model with my father, who was really the first Filipino to do all this. He always knew he can, and so I know I can,” he continued.
Recalling his father Mel’s extraordinary work on the 1992 Judge’s Sabbatical Leave Law, Julian added, “Sometimes, the rules don’t work in your favor—so what does my father do? He changes the rules.”
For Julian, that was both a lesson learned and a turning point in judicial law.
Sharing his commitment to the community, Julian has also participated in the District Attorneys Project LEAD (Legal Enrichment and Decision-making) for the last six years, where he teaches local fifth graders about the criminal justice system and the consequences of bullying, gangs, and illegal drug use.
“To have a low-income, 5th grade student come up to me and ask, ‘Do you think I can be a lawyer someday?’ I look at her and I say, ‘well, of course you can! You’ve got what it takes.’ Sometimes, that’s all you need to hear.”
Now when Julian teaches the newer attorneys in the courtroom, he is reminded of the determination and willingness of his father Mel.
“I observe them, sit in the preliminary hearings, and watch to see how they’re doing, just as my father did. It speaks volumes; teaches you so much when you get to practice standing in court. Now as an attorney, my father shows up in my trials and just watches, not so much critiquing,” Julian teased. “It really is an art.”
Coming from a Jesuit-educated background (at Loyola High and Loyola Law School), “service for others” is ultimately what matters most for the young judge.
“When it came down to choosing what I was going to be committed to in my career, I always knew it would be public service,” he said. “Whether through the DA’s office, involvement in bar associations, or even now, working for the justice system—service for others has always been a focus for me.”
For both father and son, the biggest life lesson in such a public career is the importance of work ethic, experience, and following your passion.
“You’re going to be the best if you like what you’re doing. That’s what I told him,” said Mel.
Maintaining a balance between personal and professional is equally as important. Outside of work, both Julian and Mel enjoy fitness training, healthy eating, and lessons in ballroom dancing.
“You have opportunities,” says Julian. “And if you have roadblocks, that doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t do it. You just need to start becoming more creative.”