Five Profiles of Judges in the Federal Sector
By Karnig Kerkonian
It seems we, in the Armenian Bar Association and beyond, are compelled to find unifying threads in the lives of the people we value. Similar stories of origin, upbringing, influences and aspirations must underpin, we believe, the lives of those holding similar, indeed coveted, stations in life. It perhaps comforts one to know that there is some teleology to the whole thing—that the path can be gleaned from the end itself. And to some extent, of course, there is.
In glimpsing into the lives of these judges of Armenian origin within the federal legal system1, themes of ancestral l hardship, paying homage to humble beginnings and, of course, giving back to their community abound—and for good reason, of course. But what overwhelmed me in reading these interviews is just how much more interesting everything else was. I heard voices of homage but also of self-satisfaction, echoes of humility but also of pride, reflections of drive but also of disenchantment. We are a complicated people, indeed: it is clear in considering these profiles that our history in the deserts escapes none of us, that our titles hide nothing of our historic disenfranchisement and, that our future may never outpace the memory of whence we came. You will see these themes in these interviews—each judge reflecting on them differently, each contextualizing the impact personally and, of course, each teaching the practical lessons of their path to the bench, and for the future, with a tenor uniquely theirs.
And this is what one should expect when one inquires, as we did, as to what advice a judge would give to young Armenian-American lawyers. Each was ready to teach, to impart. This, of course, is an amazing thing—something for which we, as the Armenian Bar Association, are most appreciative. But, there is so much more that was compelling in their responses. In reading the interviews, I challenge you to read more deeply, to study more critically and to think more broadly about our interviewees and their reflections. Look beyond their positions and even their common heritage, and capture what emerges in some as resounding bells and in others as a marked whisper: that, even in achievement, there is always something more that must be sought; that, even in our hardship, there is always something that must be celebrated; and that, even in our confident identity, there is always something that is steadily changing.
We would like to thank our interviewees for their graciousness and, of course, our interviewers for bringing their meaningful stories to us.
U.S. Federal District Judge for the Southern District of California
Judge Burns started our conversation with “Parev, inch bes es?” I knew this was going to be a very friendly and pleasant conversation, particularly as he recounted to me that he has been married for 35 years and tells his wife all the time that his next wife will be Armenian. He attributed much, including a long and successful marriage, back to his Armenian roots and the fact that he is a religious individual. He insisted that being a good person has led him to have a blessed life, for which he has immense gratitude and then reminded me: “God’s providence has had implications on culture and people as well.”
Judge Burns was nominated to the federal bench in the Southern District of California by President George W. Bush in 2003, and confirmed shortly thereafter by a 91-0 U.S. Senate confirmation vote. Previously, he had served a magistrate judge in the same court and, prior to that, a state and federal prosecutor. His passion for trying cases was unavoidable as he recounted his own experiences and offered advice that every attorney, at some point, should try cases and not shy away from sitting first or second chair in at least a handful of trials. His most important piece of advice, however, was abundantly clear: “Always consider your reputation in any action you take as a lawyer.” Reflecting on his 36 years of experience, Judge Burns added: “Law isn’t everything—it’s just your chosen profession” and recommended that attorneys should strive to strike a balance among family, health and work. One of his few regrets, he said, was not taking more time to enjoy his life along the way.
Considering the achievements of the Armenian-American community, Judge Burns stated matter-of-factly: “Of course we are successful, we are Armenian.” He described the collective Armenian people as industrious, hard-working, smart, and highly-motivated—a people who are able to overcome adversity. In fact, he attributed his own personal success to the fact that he is half-Armenian. He recalled with visible somberness that his grandfather only survived the Armenian Genocide because his mother hid him beneath her undergarments and bribed a Turkish guard to secure their escape. These and similar stories of survival, reminded Judge Burns, have had a profound impact in shaping our people. He remains proud to carry his heritage forward by hiring Armenian law students when he can and maintaining a close relationship with his local Armenian church: “As Armenians, we have overcome a great deal and, therefore, we each must do our part to advance our collective interest.”
U.S. Federal District Judge for the District of New Jersey
Claire (Chadirjian) Cecchi was raised in Whitestone, New York, the daughter of second generation Armenian-American parents. She explained that her ancestors came with nothing but their traditions, hoping to build a better life for themselves and their offspring. They were proud to be Americans, overcoming great obstacles as did other immigrant groups while, at the same time, true to the great moral courage and work ethic of the first generation of Armenian-Americans. She considers Armenian-Americans’ greatest achievement as becoming an integral part of building this country, living the American dream, and distinguishing themselves in the arts, politics, law and business.
Judge Cecchi grew up and attended the Bronx High School of Science, Barnard College, Columbia University and Fordham University School of Law in New York City, the original American melting pot. She met her husband, James Cecchi, on her first day of law school. She believed that becoming a lawyer would give her a unique opportunity to give back to the community. Judge Cecchi’s first post-law school position was in the office of the Corporation Counsel of New York City, then on to private practice as a litigator in New Jersey for 24 years until being selected as a United States Magistrate Judge. Judge Cecchi was then nominated by President Obama to the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey where she continues to serve today. Her advice to newly admitted or aspiring attorneys is to be courteous and civil while remaining a strong advocate. Excellent attorneys, she maintains, present all facts to the Court, even those that are not favorable, and they know when to yield an argument if their position is not strong.
She is always mindful of how we, as Armenian-Americans, have distinguished ourselves in many fields and finds it inspiring to look back upon her own family—and to remember what they did to make what she and the rest of us have today possible. Judge Cecchi views our role going forward as working to ensure that, as time passes, our children continue to learn about our great cultural heritage: “If we do that, we forge a bond between ourselves and our past and, in doing so, maintain our ongoing success within the multicultural American community.”
Magistrate Judge in the United States District Court of the Central District of California
“As I’m not quite five feet tall, it’s a definite novelty and not an unattractive perk of the job to be the tallest person in the room when I sit on the elevated bench in the courtroom,” says Judge Chooljian. When she was applying to the bench, there were no female Armenian judges in the country, she remembers—a fact that is no longer the case. She loves the intellectual challenge of “getting to drill down” to the facts and make educated decisions in a variety of areas of the law, and reminded us that “the civilized and peaceful resolution of disputes/conflicts – especially when one looks around the world today – is a heck of a lot better than the alternative.” One of her motivations to become a federal magistrate judge, was “so that other Armenian female lawyers/aspiring lawyers . . . could see that being a federal judge was a realistic possibility for them.”
Judge Chooljian’s career path was certainly marked with achievement. Upon graduation, she clerked for U.S. Federal District Judge Alicemarie H. Stotler, then spent two years working at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher. She then spent the bulk of her legal career at the United States Attorney’s Office in Los Angeles prosecuting a variety of federal criminal cases. Reflecting on opportunities available to lawyers seeking federal experience, she recommended that members of the bar should take advantage of the many possibilities available in Los Angeles, such as volunteering to work on a pro se civil rights cases, undertaking limited engagements to assist with discovery or motions, and even participating in pro se clinics where lawyers can volunteer for discrete hours at a time.
Judge Chooljian is proud that Armenians have made contributions to American society in many fields such as law, medicine, literature, politics and others while, at the same time, retaining a unique cultural identity. “We, like many other ethnic groups, contribute to the rich cultural fabric that makes America what it is.” She concluded with a thought: “Maintaining that balance of being modern American citizens but retaining our unique cultural identity will always be the challenge—ensuring that our ‘Armenianness’ doesn’t melt away in this great melting pot that is America.”
United States Immigration Judge with the U.S. Department of Justice’s Executive Office for Immigration Review
Judge Amy C. Hoogasian grew up in suburban Chicago—under the encouraging eye of her late father, the Hon. Jack Hoogasian and her lawyer mom, Claudia Aho Hoogasian. The late Judge Hoogasian served on the Board of Governors of the Armenian Bar Association as did the current Judge Hoogasian. Her father’s election as a Circuit Court Judge certainly motivated her to pursue a career in law, she recalled. After graduating from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, she attended The John Marshall Law School in Chicago and also studied law at Uppsala Universitet in Sweden. Her passion for international law was born of her family’s history—her grandparents’ ship manifests evidencing their arrival to Ellis Island in 1923 adorn the wall in her chambers and, she added, serve as a constant reminder of her grandparents’ hardship in immigrating to the United States.
Like her father and mother, Judge Hoogasian served as a county prosecutor when she graduated from law school. Her interest in environmental law then led her to a position with the Illinois Pollution Control Commission where she served as a hearing officer writing hundreds of decisions. In 1999, she joined the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Immigration and Customs Enforcement as a prosecutor. Looking to broaden her experience, Judge Hoogasian then served as chief counsel to Illinois-based Uline Inc., a privately-held, billion-dollar company, launching and managing its in-house legal department. In 2010, Judge Hoogasian applied for and was appointed a U.S. Immigration Judge in San Francisco, California where she currently serves.
Throughout her career, Judge Hoogasian has taken the time to mentor law students and attorneys. She maintained that the decision to become a judge was not necessarily part of an overall plan but makes sense now as she looks back and connects the dots—even tracing the dots back to the steps her Armenian grandparents and Finnish ancestors took to come to America. Judge Hoogasian said it reminded her of a quote from Steve Jobs, who once said, “[y]ou can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backward. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future[.]” So true, in the case of Judge Hoogasian.
Former U.S. Federal District Judge for the Central District of California
“I was a big fan of the Andy Hardy movies starring Mickey Rooney,” said Judge Tevrizian, “where Andy Hardy’s father was a Judge, and I thought that was really cool.” Judge Tevrizian was only 31 years old when he joined the California municipal bench after having made partner at the Law Offices of Kirtland and Packard only two years earlier. He served on the Los Angeles Municipal Bench for 4 years and then in the Superior Court for 6 years. He was appointed by President Ronald Reagan as a United States Federal District Court Judge for the Central District of California in 1985. Today, he is retired from the federal bench and, in addition to being a mediator/arbitrator with JAMS, he serves on the legal advisory board for Legal Zoom and the AGBU.
His advice to aspiring attorneys was specific: “Go to college and get a technical background in science, computer science, medicine, or chemical engineering.” He insisted that diverse course experience is essential and, moreover, that law schools and the legal profession are looking for people with technical and engineering backgrounds. Interestingly, after law school Judge Tevrizian worked for the accounting firm of Arthur Andersen before beginning his career in law. He believes that the legal profession is in need for more stability and more professionalism and that a change in such direction is necessary.
Judge Tevrizian’s efforts to assist the Armenian Bar Association and mentor numerous Armenian lawyers has been important to bringing cohesion to, and awareness of, the Armenian legal community, particularly in southern California. That said, he views the contributions of the Armenian community to the American society in a broader context: “Our contributions are no different from the other ethnic communities with regard to the cultural contributions they made to make America a diverse mosaic of interests.” And his advice for what the Armenian community must do moving forward is as pragmatic as it is aspirational: “We need to reduce the number of Armenian defendants in the criminal justice system.” Together with our achievements as Armenian-Americans, there are certainly difficulties we must face—and this particular challenge weighs heavily on the mind of Judge Tevrizian.
As we reflect on these thoughts, we should not forget how fortunate we are as an Armenian Bar Association to have among us judges in the federal system whose stories show us the possibility of achievement within the greater American legal community and whose consciences remain steadfast on the challenges we face as Armenian-Americans. We thank each of the judges for allowing us the opportunity to bring their stories to you, and we trust you have found these brief insights meaningful.
The interviews above proceeded with the following pairings, Judge Larry Burns with Vanna Kitsinian, Judge Claire Cecchi with Scott A. Ohnegian, Judge Jacqueline Chooljian with Saro Kerkonian and Lucy Varpetian, Judge Amy Hoogasian with Haig Baghdassarian, and Judge Dickran Tevrizian with Tina Odjaghian.
Karnig Kerkonian, from Chicago, is a distinguished graduate magna cum laude of Harvard University who holds two law degrees—a Doctorate in Law from the University of Chicago and a post-doctoral Diploma in International Law from Cambridge University, England. Since 1999, Karnig has represented numerous U.S. companies and multinational entities in transactional matters as well as complex business litigation matters. He is well recognized for his work in international law, both public and private, and has been tapped as specialized counsel in cross-border matters as well as a leading speaker before law associations on various international legal issues.
Haig Baghdassarian, from San Francisco, is the principal attorney of the Law Office of Haig Baghdassarian. He has extensive experience advising clients and litigating labor and employment, municipal law, and governmental relations matters. Haig also has an active immigration law practice, handling most aspects of immigration issues, including asylum claims, family-based petitions and employment and investor based immigration matters. He is a graduate of Hastings Law School.
Saro Kerkonian, from Glendale, has been an attorney for 26 years and is a partner in the firm of Kerkonian & Chakerian, LLP, where the practice areas include workers’ compensation, personal injury and social security law. He is certified by the California State Bar as a specialist in the field of workers’ compensation law. Besides his family and law practice, Saro has devoted his life to the Armenian Bar Association of which he is a founding member and a current Executive Committee and Board Member.
Vanna Kitsinian, from Los Angeles, who is a member of the Armenian Bar’s Board of Governors, is a graduate of Pepperdine University School of Law, where she was a member of the Law Review. Vanna’s practice is in civil litigation matters with an emphasis on pharmaceutical liability, product liability and personal injury cases.
Tina Odjaghian, from Los Angeles, who is the newest member of the Armenian Bar’s Board of Governors, practices workers’ compensation litigation with an emphasis on complex and high-stakes brain injury litigation. Tina also represents a select group of insurance companies and self-insured employers in workers’ compensation matters. She is a graduate of Loyola Law School.
Scott A. Ohnegian, from northern New Jersey, is co-chair of Riker Danzig Scherer Hyland Perretti, LLP’s Labor & Employment Group. He focuses on the representation of management in litigating federal and state employment matters including claims involving allegations of discrimination, whistleblowing, harassment, Sarbanes-Oxley retaliation, misappropriation of trade secrets and restrictive covenant claims.
Lucy Varpetian, from Los Angeles, is a Senior Assistant City Attorney in the Office of the Glendale City Attorney, where she focuses on general municipal transactional matters. She is a graduate of Southwestern University School of Law, and the former President of the Glendale Bar Association and former Executive Director of the Armenian Bar Association.
1 We have selected to employ the phrase “judges with the federal legal system” rather than “federal judges” in referring to our interviewees collectively since not all of our interviewees are Article III federal judges. We have reserved the phrase “Federal Judge” for Article III judges, such as the U.S. Federal District Court Judges, as only they may be appointed by the U.S. President and confirmed by the U.S. Senate.