A look at 40-year career of Superior Court Judge Mel Red Recana, first Filipino American judge in US

Tony Cabrera  Image
Wednesday, May 29, 2024
Celebrating career of Judge Recana, 1st Filipino American judge in US
Superior Court Judge Mel Red Recana has served on the bench for more than 40 years. He is the first Filipino American judge to be appointed.

LOS ANGELES (KABC) -- Superior Court Judge Mel Red Recana has served on the bench for more than 40 years.

Every day, he walks into his courtroom focused on fairness, order and procedure. It's a dream he still can't believe, considering his humble beginnings in the Philippines where he says his family was poor. His father was a town police officer with a third-grade education, who redirected Mel away from being an Army general, even an actor!

"My dad said you know what son, to be an actor you've got to be good looking or extremely ugly. You're just an average guy. So, what am I going to do now? My dad said you love to talk, maybe you should be a lawyer," Recana said.

He loved watching movies with jury trials, and his hero became American defense counsel, Clarence Darrow. Sure enough, he pursued the dream and practiced law in the Philippines.

It wasn't long before the American dream came calling and he immigrated to California - settling for a blue-collar job with the Southern Pacific Railroad Company. As fate would have it, he met a Filipino lawyer who helped him after a car accident.

"He said Mel, I heard you're a lawyer from the Philippines. I said yes. Well, you can take the bar without going back to law school. I said why is that? Well, because the Philippines is a common law jurisdiction country," Recana said.

In the mid-'70s, Recana passed the bar exam and eventually landed as a deputy district attorney under DA John Van de Kamp. Then came the life-changing appointment by Governor Jerry Brown.

"At that time, Governor Brown was really looking, I need a Filipino judge, he was really looking around. And I was there, minding my own business, there you go," Recana said.

On May 27, 1981, Recana became the first Filipino American judge in the country. And 34 years later, Governor Brown appointed Recana's son, Julian as judge. Mel had the honor of swearing him in.

"I really do owe everything to him for this one. I really wouldn't be here because of him. He was the big dreamer," said Judge Julian Recana, Los Angeles Superior Court. "He put in the idea that I could also become a judge or become an attorney. I never thought I couldn't be that because I had him as a father."

Julian can attest to the impact his father has had, by the people who come through his own courtroom.

"Almost every day, there's an attorney that goes before me that goes, 'I remember your father, I know your father. He was so kind, he was so fair,'" said Julian. "I always looked forward to coming back to his court. It's that kind of reputation that he had."

This month, he was honored by the Philippine American Bar Association with its Lifetime Achievement Award, an organization that's grown in part thanks to him paving the way. But as Judge Recana looks to the future, he hopes Filipinos will be more active politically.

"Hopefully someday soon we'll have congressmen, congresswomen and who knows maybe even senators, why not, why not the presidency?" Recana said.

Now, as he looks back, he is grateful.

"God was with me all this time. I've never wavered in my faith. It was quite an adventure, really," he said.

The judge said still, to this day, when he hears the words "all rise," he gets emotional: "I feel it in my heart."