Winston Keh: Judge, lawyer, community activist, public servant

The newly appointed judge of San Bernardino County Superior Court discusses his passion for serving the people and being a necessary source for the Filipino American community

Judge Winston Keh isn’t your run-of-the-mill lawyer.

In his decades-long career as a lawman, Keh always goes beyond what is expected of him and has a rich oeuvre of volunteer work as a lawyer.

He didn’t just get into the game to make a living; he got in it to serve the people and the community which mean the world to him.

On May 22, California Governor Jerry Brown appointed Keh to serve as a judge for the Superior Court of San Bernardino County, where Keh served as a court commissioner for two years.

With this appointment, Keh — who is half Chinese and half Filipino American — becomes the first Filipino American to be appointed as a judge in San Bernardino. He also became the 16th Fil-Am judge in California.

And to those that know him know his dedication to serving the public and being an active member in the Filipino American and Asian American communities; so, it’s not a surprise at all that Gov. Brown chose him.

“That’s why the governor was so delighted to appoint him to the San Bernardino County Superior Court because he was someone who has been active, who has shown that he cares about his community, who has shown he cares deeply about the legal profession and he’s going to work like heck to support all of us,” one of Keh’s mentors, Judge Holly J. Fujie of the Los Angeles Superior Court, said at a reception for him on July 8 in downtown LA.

Surrounded by family members, colleagues, and members of the Philippine American Bar Association (PABA) and the Asian Pacific American Bar Association (APABA), Fujie administered the oath of office and Keh was given his judicial robes.

The appointment is a huge achievement for Keh, 54, who has dedicated his life to serving the country and its people by ensuring the law of the land is upheld.

And he realized his calling early on.

“My career choice came by accident. I didn’t know what I was going to do, but my government teacher in high school kind of influenced me in going towards this path,” Keh told the Asian Journal on July 8. “It came as second nature as I was very into studying U.S. history and the political structure of this country. It just came naturally and after that class, I thought, ‘You know what? I’m going to make a career in law.’”

And he did just that. After high school, he became a baccalaureate at University of West Los Angeles, and after that, he earned a Juris Doctor degree from the College of Law at La Verne University.

What followed was an extensive career as an attorney, working with several firms as an associate, a senior litigation attorney and senior counsel. He also served as a volunteer attorney for Asian Americans Advancing Justice – LA, a legal and civil rights organization, where he provided legal assistance with immigration documents and expungement petitions.

Since 2007, he has served as Judge Pro Tem in the LA County Superior Court, where he presided over traffic and smalls claims cases, a service of which he spoke very fondly. He described the experience as fulfilling since it was a way to interact with the people and it gave him the chance to embody the judicial system.

“I found it to be enjoyable because you’re serving the public directly. A lot of folks don’t go to court and, for most people, your own contact with the court is with traffic cases, and as a temporary judge, you’re the face of the judiciary,” Keh said.

“I enjoyed it very much. I found the experience to be very fulfilling and that’s why I decided to escalate, so to speak, or to get into this full time. That’s why I did it. It was a very rewarding experience. Busy, but rewarding.”

A service for the Fil-Am community

In 2007, as he was serving with the LA County Superior Court, he joined the Board of Governors at PABA, of which he became president of in 2013. He also served as a board member for the APABA from 2012 to 2013.

At PABA, he led a team of attorneys to provide pro-bono legal counsel to the Fil-Am community.

Keh described the experience as extremely fulfilling, but also incredibly necessary to the community.

“It was very important for me because I believe as a lawyer, you are blessed with certain skills and in the Filipino-American community, we don’t have a whole lot of lawyers,” Keh remarked.

He said that Filipinos often cannot afford legal services and don’t know where to go for help with immigration, health care and other issues. Knowing how much Filipinos value trust and familiarity, it was important for him to let the Filipino community know that there are lawyers who are there for them and understand the community’s struggles.

He collaborated with the Filipino Migrant Center in Long Beach, which serves many underprivileged Fil-Ams who seek legal help for a multitude of issues, including health care, workplace and wage issues and immigration among others.

“As a lawyer, you get to provide services to folks who could otherwise not afford the services and I thought it would be important for PABA to reach out to the community and introduce ourselves to the community,” Keh explained. “I thought it was extremely important for the PABA lawyers, who are very, very talented, to showcase what they can do, and to show the Filipino community that we are here and that we come from the same background. We needed to let them know we are there to help them.”

From bench officer to becoming the first Fil-Am judge in San Bernardino

In 2015, Keh was appointed to court commissioner with the Superior Court of San Bernardino County, the fifth most populous county in the state. The appointment was a big step for Keh, who always dreamed of serving a full-time position with the bench.

“That was one of the happiest days of my life,” Keh said of his escalation into  I’ve always wanted to be [on] the bench and it’s always been a dream of mine to serve as a bench officer on a full-time position. It truly, truly was one of the happiest days of my life.”

A mere two years later brought Keh a chance of a lifetime: the opportunity to be a full time presiding superior court judge.

“I was thrilled when I got the news,” Keh said of his appointment. “It really was a dream come true. It’s going to be hard work, but I’m ready to do it.”

At the reception in LA, members of PABA and APABA spoke of his tenacity and dedication, but also emphasized the humility that is a part of his charm. Keh could not take all the credit for his success. He spoke wonders of his peers and mentors who inspired him and his family for their endless support and for keeping his spirits up.

To Fil-Ams pursuing careers in the legal profession, Keh says this:

“Be true to yourself. If public service a passion of yours, you need to pursue a career in law, because we are so unrepresented. We need more Filipino American lawyers in all areas in the law to help our own. Always do the right thing…always, always do the right thing and work very hard.”

Klarize Medenilla

Klarize Medenilla is a staff writer and reporter for the Asian Journal. You can reach her at [email protected].

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