When President Jimmy Carter appointed him to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in 1977, Thomas Tang became the first Chinese American to serve on the federal bench at the appellate level. Tang’s devotion to protecting individual rights and advancing Asian Americans in the legal profession inspired an annual national Asian American Moot Court competition in his name.
Thomas Tang was born January 11, 1922 in Phoenix, Arizona to grocery store owners. He fought with the U.S. Army during World War II, rising to the rank of first lieutenant. After the war he entered the University of Santa Clara and graduated with a B.A. He then earned a masters in law from the University of Arizona College of Law before being recalled to the Army at the outbreak of the Korean War.
Tang left the Army in 1952 and practiced briefly before being hired as a Maricopa, Arizona deputy county attorney. In 1957 he became an Assistant Attorney General of Arizona. Tang was elected to the Phoenix City Council in 1960. Three years later he was elected to a judgeship of the Arizona Superior Court in Phoenix. Among the lawyers who appeared before Judge Tang was future Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. In 1996, soon after Tang’s death, the law school bearing O’Connor’s name would inaugurate an annual diversity essay competition in Tang’s honor.
As a Superior Court trial judge Tang made a name for himself as a staunch defender of individual rights. In a highly publicized murder case he was accused of being too lenient with the juvenile defendant. The charge appears to have stuck and cost Tang his 1970 re-election bid. Tang returned to private practice until he was appointed to the 9th Circuit. In 1993 he took senior status. He died in 1995. Tang is survived by his wife Dr. Pearl Tang and their children. For many years Dr. Tang continued to participate each year in the Thomas Tang Moot Court competition.