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Meet San Diego's first Asian American Federal Magistrate and Legal Geek

 July 26, 2023 at 4:19 PM PDT

S1: Welcome back to Kpbs Midday Edition. I'm Jade Hindman. Last month , Steve Chu became San Diego's first Asian American federal magistrate judge , but Chiu also moonlights as part of the legal geeks , a group of lawyers and judges who use pop culture to teach people about the law. At Comic-Con , he was part of a panel addressing legal questions about Indiana Jones. Kpbs arts reporter Beth Accomando spoke with Chu about his dual identity as a respected judge and legal geek.

S2: Last week , Steve Chu left his judge's chambers in downtown San Diego to take the stage at Comic-Con as part of the Legal Geeks panel , Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost lawsuit. On Thursday , Chu had to address whether Indy was an archaeologist or a grave robber. Here's a highlight from his argument.

S3: Now , generally , under the law , archaeologists are sort of a certain breed because they're not treasure hunters , per se. These are people who were supposedly looking for items for educational purposes because they want to learn the truth of what happened long ago. And they also want to share that with everyone. They want to put in a museum , they want to lecture , They want to teach. Their primary purpose is sort of education , if you will. So it's sort of unusual to think of them as treasure hunters. There is an analogy in maritime law when people can discover , for example , treasures. We've heard this from like sunken Spanish galleons , for example , the law will provide something called a finder's fee to the person who finds it , but not allow them to keep all of the doubloons and all the valuables , because those will then be returned to the original owner. You know , that's sort of a middle ground , if you will , within the law. So I guess the bottom line here is that from what we see in the movies , I'd say he's really kind of straddling that line a lot of the time. He on the one hand , he is engaging in some pretty outrageous adventures. I don't know very many college professors who are capable of taking down Nazis , airplanes , traveling in time , defeating space aliens. It's pretty impressive. But at the same time , when he does get a treasure , we never see him like cash it in. You know , he's not living some grand life. He's not driving a luxury car. In the latest movie. He's living in some average apartment in New York. So if you look at all that , you know , maybe he really is in this for the educational purpose. So I would say we're probably tilting a little bit towards that. The conclusion that he is here for the right reasons , if you will.

S2: The panel also discussed the government's right to keep the Lost Ark of the Covenant and whether Indy's contract with Marion was legally binding. Sitting in Choose chambers , I immediately notice a full size proton pack from Ghostbusters. His office is filled with toys and an equal number of law books and comics. I asked you to describe who the legal geeks are.

S3: The legal Geeks is a group of attorneys and judges who love nerd culture. And by that I mean comic books. Science fiction movies shows a lot of pop culture from the 80s , 90s , and today we are often people who grew up on comic books , collecting toys , debating sort of who would win in a fight , you know , Superman or Luke Skywalker or whatnot. And we really cared about these things and we still do. And so we present at comic book conventions. We do podcasts. I've been going to Comic-Con for many , many years , and it's always just something that we love. And I remember when I first went to Comic-Con and I arrived in the convention hall and I'd never been to a comic convention growing up , but there was a real sense that I was among sort of my people , you know , our tribe of fans that really care and deeply about these things. And you could just start a conversation with anybody there. Oh , what did you think of the last Star Wars movie ? What would you think about this Star Trek episode ? Almost everyone will say , Oh yeah , I like this part and that part. And you could just get into this really intense conversation. And it's just wonderful to be among folks who care about the same things you do.

S2: And with legal geeks , you guys want to use pop culture to teach people about the law.

S3: Yes , I view it as our mission to educate people about the law and to make it fun and accessible. So we do these mock trials , these pretend trials. We did a marvel trial about Luke Cage. We did a Star Wars court martial. About Poe Dameron We do not deny Captain Damon's actions. We've shown you why he did what he did. We therefore ask that you find Captain Dameron not guilty for disobeying orders. Not guilty for mutiny , and not guilty for conduct unbecoming an officer. He could only act with the knowledge that he had at that time. And I remind everyone in this room that we are the spark that will light the fire , that will burn the first order to the ground. And we try to make it as realistic as we can with real rules , following some rules of evidence and how a trial would actually happen , but also putting it in that fictional setting because we want it to be fun and we want people to get engaged and think about these things. I think one of the first big trials we did was a droids rights trial at WonderCon , and what we had was C-3po and R2-d2 suing the cantina , trying to force the cantina to serve them.

S4: What ? Your droids. They'll have to wait outside. We don't want them here we are by the speeder. We don't want any trouble.

S5: I heartily agree with you , sir.

S3: We thought , well , what would happen if they sued to try to get access ? And so we put on a whole trial. We had the bartender were there saying , I can't serve them. It would ruin my business. And that was a lot of fun. And then we had the audience kind of vote on it afterwards and it was actually fairly split. I was impressed. I think going in , a lot of people were pro droid , but when they heard both sides , they realized , well , there are some issues. We love being able to get people to think about these things and think about the law and kind of how it would really play out in real life , that there's a lot of gray area , and that's really where the law lives in that gray area.

S2: And for people who may expect a judge to have a very kind of reserved room , not necessarily showing their personality , describe what you have here.

S3: Well , I think a judge's chambers ends up being a reflection of who they are. And a big part of who I am are these properties that I love. So right behind me , we have a couple of Lego Star Wars vehicles , the UK's X-Wing and Ukhsa Wing , both of which I built with a lot of help from family over here. I'm a huge 80s kid , a Transformers fan , so that's the matrix of leadership , a replica. Some may recognize it , some may not. And that's also part of Transformers lore. And that was the MacGuffin , if you will , or the item that helped the Autobots defeat Unicron in the movie. And that's passed down from Autobot leader to Autobot leader , and it contains the accumulated wisdom of the Autobot ancients. So I figured I could use some help when I'm making my decisions as a judge and maybe the Autobots , the Autobots will lend me some of their wisdom here and there.

S4: The power of the Matrix will light our darkest hour. No.

S2: So with legal geeks , you use pop culture to teach about the law.

S3: He's an attorney as well , a blind attorney. He became an attorney to fight the bullies because he was bullied a lot growing up and believed in the rules of law. And he wanted to fight for justice. And so he is someone who takes on the tough cases , defends people in the courtroom , and also is there's the superhero angle where he's a trained ninja fighting this huge underground battle against the hand , the Ninja Clan and various other villains. But it's a lot of fun because there have been some of the writers have been attorneys as well , and they've written some very good courtroom scenes and trial scenes that have been pretty accurate. Pretty realistic. So that that's a lot of fun. So Captain Picard here , the epitome of a Starfleet , captain of Dignity command , fairness and also justice. There are several episodes where he acts as an advocate and also as a judge. And his character was brilliantly written and acted by acted by Patrick Stewart and really a role model in pop culture. So he's someone who I Revere , certainly , and Mr. Spock up here as well , the epitome of logic and reason over emotion. And as we saw in some episodes , he would blend the two. As he said , logic is the beginning of wisdom , not the end. Also , someone in the pop culture world to whom I aspire.

S2: So Steve , you have recently had a change of positions for your job , so explain what your new job is.

S3: I was recently sworn in as a United States federal magistrate judge here in San Diego , so that's my new position. I'm part of the federal judiciary.


S3: I handle both civil and criminal matters , magistrate judges. We handle cases up to a certain point. On the civil side , we handle cases all the way through what's called discovery , pretty much up until trial or up until there's a motion that would end the case and then that gets handed off to the district judge. We also run settlement conferences and mediations. That's a big part of our job is we try to resolve cases short of trial. So that's the civil side. On the criminal side , we handle sort of what's called the new complaints , initial appearances. We handle cases up until there are pleas , and then we hand them off to the district judges for further proceedings up to and including trial and sentencings.


S3: You kind of respect the rules , but I do think that it's important to have rules that help society help our government. So I believe in that. Also , as a kid , I was always sort of like the peacemaker and kind of helping to mediate disputes on the playground or just all over the place. And I never liked bullies and I wanted to stand up to bullies and the law through exercising the rules , enforcing the rules is , I believe , a way to do that. People are supposed to be equal under the law , and the law applies equally to everyone. So it should be a fair playing field. And that often is the role of the judge to make sure that it is fair. It's in the oath that we swear when we become a judge that we do equal justice to rich and poor , the sort of the powerful and the less fortunate. That's our role , to make things equal and to give people a fair shot so that I care deeply about that. Also , my parents are immigrants , and I got to see firsthand what it was like trying to build a life , follow the rules , and build a life for our family here in America. And I am just impressed and respectful of what our country stands for , offering that opportunity to people , treating people equally , guaranteeing rights to people. I care deeply about that , and I wanted to be a part of that legal system and making it as good as possible. So this is another chance for me to do that.

S2: What do you see are the differences between being a lawyer and being a judge , and what can you do as a judge that kind of attracted you to wanting to pursue that.

S3: As an attorney ? You're an advocate , so you're representing a client and you're trying to do right by your client. And there are ranges of opinions about what that entails , how forceful. Well , one should be what sort of techniques to use. But you're at the bottom line. You're an advocate. What I liked about being an assistant United States attorney was that we were taught to do three things in every case , do the right thing for the right reason in the right way. And that was very different from when it all costs , which sometimes I would hear when I was in private practice , for example. So I cared a lot about following those three tenants. And I was taught and I also taught as an instructor at the DOJ training center. Those same three things do the right thing for the right reason and the right way. And if you achieve those three goals , then at the end of the day , regardless of the outcome of the case , you've done a good job. I've always carried that with me. So yes , I've been an advocate , but I've also been focused on doing the right thing. The truth. As a judge , we are much more the referee. You know , to use the sports analogy , we call the balls and strikes. We make sure that the rules are followed. We make sure it's a fair game for everybody. We don't focus so much on the outcome of the case. We just want to make sure that people have a fair shot. Our goal is to protect the system. We want people to have faith in the legal system , that the legal system is fair and that it's accessible to everybody , understandable to everybody. That's very important. That's one of the underpinnings of America , of our country. So as a judge , I view to be our role , to safeguard the system and to make the system as good as possible. As an attorney , you're more sort of one of the people kind of in the playing field , kind of one of the combatants or one of the the athletes on the soccer field trying to trying to score your goals. But as a judge , you're the referee. You're trying to make sure everything's fair.

S1: That was Beth Accomando speaking with Steve Chu. You can find video of Judge Chu's toilet in chambers at slash Comic-Con , and you can find more about the legal geeks at the legal

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Judge Steve Chu in his chambers and surrounded by a collection of toys and props from the pop culture properties he loves. July 11, 2023
Carlos Castillo
Judge Steve Chu in his chambers and surrounded by a collection of toys and props from the pop culture properties he loves. July 11, 2023

Last month Steve Chu became San Diego's first Asian American Magistrate Judge. But last week he was at Comic-Con with The Legal Geeks and weighing in on whether Indiana Jones is an archeologist or a grave robber.

Chu is honored by his new appointment, but is not sure how to react to the description of being the first Asian American in this job in San Diego.

"On the one hand, I think that it's a wonderful thing," Chu said. "I'm happy to be here and to help, and I hope that I will not be the last. Hopefully the first of many. I'd love for us as a society to get to a point where seeing people of color, like Asian American people, in positions of authority is not really a novelty anymore."

But Chu is something of a novelty. He is both a respected judge and a geeky fan of pop culture. His chambers are filled with toys, props and an equal number of law books and comics.

Judge champions pop culture and the law

"I think a judge's chambers ends up being a reflection of who they are, and a big part of who I am are these properties that I love," Chu said.

He also draws inspiration from characters such as Marvel's Daredevil and Star Trek's Spock and Captain Picard.

You can find out more about Chu and the Legal Geeks in this Comic-Con story.