On December 15, 2021, President Joe Biden nominated Judge Kenly Kato to the United States District Court for the Central District of California, a seat previously held by Judge Beverly Reid O’Connell. Judge Kato has served as a United States Magistrate Judge for the Central District of California since 2014. Should Judge Kato be confirmed, she would be the third AAPI woman judge to ever serve in the Central District of California.
Judge Kenly Kato was born in Los Angeles, California in 1972. Judge Kato got her B.A. summa cum laude from the University of California Los Angeles in 1993, and a J.D. cum laude from Harvard Law School in 1996.
After graduating, Judge Kato clerked for Judge Robert Takasugi on the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California before joining the federal public defender’s office in Los Angeles. From 1997 to 2003, Judge Kato worked as a Research & Writing Attorney and then a Deputy Federal Public Defender at the Federal Public Defender’s Office for the Central District of California. Her entire practice was devoted to representing indigent individuals accused of committing federal crimes. She regularly appeared in federal court in connection with a wide range of federal criminal matters, including drug offenses, bank robbery, and fraud. Judge Kato also represented clients on appeal. For example, in United States v. Bonas, she successfully persuaded the Ninth Circuit to dismiss charges against her client on the grounds that the trial judge erred in ordering a mistrial and that her client’s Double Jeopardy rights would be violated by a retrial.
In 2003, Judge Kato entered private practice and worked for approximately one year at Liner Grode Stein Yankelevitz Sunshine Regenstreif & Taylor LLP. During her time at the firm, she represented individual and corporate defendants in criminal proceedings in both state and federal court. She also represented individual, municipal, and corporate clients in civil litigation, including in the areas of civil rights, securities, and general business litigation. During that time, Judge Kato was a member of the Central District of California’s Criminal Justice Act Panel, through which she continued to represent indigent individuals accused of committing federal crimes.
In 2004, Judge Kato started her own private practice and worked as a solo practitioner for the next decade. She focused on representing individuals accused of committing federal crimes, while also working on civil rights and employment litigation in both state and federal court.
In 2014, Judge Kato was appointed as a U.S. Magistrate Judge for the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California. In this role, she presides over settlements, preliminary hearings, bail, and any cases where the parties consent to her jurisdiction. The following cases are representative of her judicial experience:
Driving Under the Influence
In United States v. Baariu, No. EDCR 18-36-KK, Dkt. 81 (C.D. Cal. Jan. 3, 2019), the defendant was stopped on Fort Irwin Army Base property driving under the influence of alcohol with his five-year-old son sleeping in a car seat without a seat belt fastened. The defendant was indicted with charges that included driving under the influence, reckless driving, and failing to properly secure a child passenger under eight years of age. Judge Kato presided over a two-day jury trial involving five witnesses, including two U.S. Army officers and a forensic scientist. The jury convicted the defendant on all counts and Judge Kato sentenced him to thirty days in prison and one-year supervised release.
In Cody v. Gower, Mr. Cody challenged his state court conviction of first-degree murder during the course of a robbery, after he was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Judge Kato found that the jury was not properly instructed to consider Mr. Cody’s mental state as required under statute. Judge Kato issued a Report and Recommendation to deny the petition as to the underlying murder conviction but grant his request that his sentence be reevaluated. Mr. Cody was resentenced in state court and remains in custody.
In Conan v. City of Fontana, the plaintiffs brought civil rights claims against a City of Fontana police officer for allegedly assaulting one of the plaintiff’s as he was being escorted out of a bar. Judge Kato ruled on various pre-trial motions and presided over a four-day jury trial involving seven witnesses. The jury returned a verdict in favor of the defendants on all claims. The plaintiffs did not appeal.
In Bd. Of Trs. of Cal. Ironworkers Field Pension Tr. v. Negrete, Inc., the plaintiffs, trustees of a multi-employer trust fund, sued a union that employed union ironworkers on construction projects. The plaintiffs claimed that the union breached a written collective bargaining agreement and related trust agreements in violation of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act for failing to make certain payments. Judge Kato decided for the plaintiffs and ordered that the defendants make the specified payments and related fees.
In Safeco Ins. Co. of Am. v. Monroe, No. EDCV 15-1471-RGK (KKx) (C.D. Cal. July 5, 2016), the parties disputed the insurance coverage over a wrongful death lawsuit simultaneously proceeding in state court. In the underlaying state court case, the decedent’s sons and mother alleged that the decedent was lawfully on Ms. Kavanagh-Shiershke’s property when the decedent fatally fell into an open and uncovered deep water well. Ms. Kavanagh-Shiershke’s insurer, the plaintiff in this case, claimed that they had no duty to pay for any of her attorney’s fees in the state court case. After ruling on a discovery motion permitting plaintiff to inspect Ms. Kavanagh-Shiershke’s property, Judge Kato presided over a full-day settlement conference. Following significant discussion and consultation, the parties reached a global settlement of both the federal and underlying state court.
Professional Activities and Accolades
Judge Kato engaged in extensive pro bono work while she was in private practice, including providing indigent criminal defendants with quality legal representation by serving as a member of the Criminal Justice Act panel for the Central District of California. Additionally, she regularly participated in other legal services programs, including “Adoption Day” events where I helped families navigate the legal processes involved in adoption. Judge Kato was awarded the Justice Stephen K. Tamura Award from the Asian Pacific American Lawyers of the Inland Empire in 2016 for her outstanding service on the bench.