Utah justice court judge known for advocating for Asian Americans has died

(Al Hartmann | Tribune file photo) Judge Michael Kwan, pictured here in 2011.

A Taylorsville justice court judge known for his advocacy for Asian Americans and criticisms of President Donald Trump died suddenly Tuesday.

Michael Kwan, 58, had been on the bench for more than two decades.

Emily Bingham, a family spokeswoman, said Kwan’s death was unexpected — his family found him unresponsive Tuesday morning. She said he hadn’t been ill, and an autopsy will be done to determine how he died.

Kwan leaves behind his wife, two children and a “granddog” named Beebo that was “his pride and joy,” Bingham said.

The justice court judge was known for being an early adopter of drug courts, which favor rehabilitation over punitive measures for drug offenders and people who are caught driving drunk. He also advocated for Chinese Americans to receive more recognition for their contributions to the Transcontinental Railroad. He was a descendant of one of Utah’s Chinese workers who built the railroad.

“We will sincerely miss Judge Kwan and all that he brought to the court,” Taylorsville Mayor Kristie Overson said in a statement Tuesday. “He was organized and technically savvy. He was good-humored and good-natured. He cared profoundly about our community and [wanted] to make it better. But most importantly, he prized justice.”

Kwan made national headlines last May after he was suspended for six months without pay for making politically charged comments about Trump both from the bench and on his social media accounts.

He eventually returned to his job after his suspension ended.

A memorial service will be announced in the coming days, Bingham said, but no plans have been settled on yet as the family is concerned about the pandemic.

Bingham said that aside from all of Kwan’s accomplishments and accolades, his family wanted him to be remembered as a caring brother. He had three sisters, one of whom is state Rep. Karen Kwan, D-Murray.

“He was an amazing brother,” Bingham said. “She adored him. He walked on water, as far as she was concerned. For her especially, it’s a tremendous loss.”

Bingham described Kwan as “fun-witted” and someone who was dedicated to his family.

Those who worked in the courtroom with him mourned his death Tuesday.

“Judge Kwan was a beloved friend and mentor,” said Taylorsville City Attorney Tracy S. Cowdell. “The world feels a little more empty without him here. We have lost a fierce advocate who believed no one was lost and anyone could change. I will miss him dearly.”

Public defender Doug Stowell remembered Kwan as an “honorable man with strong principles and ideas.”

“He made every effort to practice his profession in a manner which recognized and respected the people whom he served,” he said. “We are better for having him in our lives.”

Gov. Gary Herbert also offered his condolences, as did Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes.

“His friends in Utah and across the globe mourn deeply,” Reyes said in a statement. “He is gone at far too young an age.”

Kwan received a law degree from Whittier College School of Law and was certified in Chinese law by the East China University of Politics and Law. He served as pro tempore judge in 3rd District Court from 1996 to 1998, before presiding over the Taylorsville Justice Court.

Taylorsville city officials said Tuesday they are working with the courts to appoint Kwan’s replacement as soon as possible.

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