People of SU / Society / Justice and Law

The Unending Fight for Justice

Written by Tracy DeCroce

March 29, 2019

Benes Aldana

Alumnus leading change as president of The National Judicial College.

At the time Benes Aldana, ’91, was applying to be president of The National Judicial College (NJC), a newly elected President Donald Trump was openly questioning the authority of the nation’s judges. Aldana, having recently retired from a 23-year career with the U.S. Coast Guard in which he served as a judge for roughly half that time, was looking to play an integral role in preserving U.S. democracy and protecting individual rights through fair and impartial courts. He saw the NJC, with its mission to educate judges from coast to coast, as the place to do it.

It has been more than two years since the NJC Board of Trustees unanimously selected Aldana to lead the nation’s oldest, most prestigious and widely attended school for judges. He says it’s been an honor to lead the organization at a time when having a skilled, principled and dedicated judiciary has never been more important. 

“My proudest accomplishment so far has been refocusing the institution on our mission to not only educate judges but inspire them to know that they can make difficult decisions,” Aldana says. “Judges need to avoid any appearance of bias in matters that come before them, but they are also compelled to stand up for the independence of the judiciary.”

Threats to the judiciary take a variety of forms, Aldana says, from vicious, often personal attacks and attack ads in judicial elections to the politicization of the appointment of judges. Social media has emboldened some citizens and groups to demand recalls or suggest physically harming judges in retribution for unpopular decisions. Mandatory sentencing requirements also undermine judicial independence by imposing limits on their decision-making.

In December 2018, under Aldana’s leadership, the NJC organized and co-sponsored a national symposium, “Undermining the Courts and the Media: The Consequences for American Democracy.” The event drew about 275 judges, journalists and others to the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., to hear distinguished judges, all of whom have faced criticism during their time on the bench. They also heard leaders of major media, including Martin Baron, executive editor of The Washington Post. The intent of the symposium was to raise awareness about the vulnerability of democracy when forces chip away at institutions that are necessary to safeguard democracy, Aldana says.

Benes Aldana delivers opening remarks at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. 

“We take democracy for granted, which is dangerous,” he says. “We’ve seen the results of complacency throughout history.”

Born in the Philippines, Aldana immigrated when he was 10 years old with his family to Maryland, where his U.S. Navy father had been stationed. They later moved to Oak Harbor, Wash. When he was 13, Aldana made up his mind to become a lawyer, deciding he would have more influence in that role, after years of thinking he would be a priest.

For college, he chose Seattle University. He studied in the Honors Program, interned on Capitol Hill sophomore year and served as student body president as a senior. He graduated cum laude with a political science degree. His wife, Rowena, ’93, who was his high school sweetheart, is an Albers School of Business and Economics graduate. He went on to earn his Juris Doctorate from the University of Washington School of Law.

His distinguished career includes leadership positions of progressive responsibility in the Coast Guard. He rose from Trial Judge to Appellate Judge and ultimately became the first Asian Pacific American to serve as Chief Trial Judge of a U.S. military service.

His Coast Guard career also gave him an opportunity to prosecute environment crimes, as a trial attorney for the U.S. Department of Justice Environmental Enforcement Section and as a Special Assistant U.S. Attorney in Seattle.

It also gave him the chance to live in Europe and work in Africa for U.S. Africa Command. He headed the U.S. military’s efforts to advance the rule of law and human rights across the African continent. He has received several Meritorious Service Medals from multiple branches of the military and the Department of Defense, plus the 2016 Department of Homeland Security General Counsel’s Award of Excellence.

The “defining moment” of his career came in the aftermath of 9/11, Aldana says, when his country called him to serve as a legal advisor on the Department of Defense Criminal Investigation Task Force in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Reflecting on that experience today, he says it challenged him to live out “what the Jesuits taught me about discernment and critical thinking, to make sure I was making the right decisions.”

“I felt that was the moment when my grounding in Jesuit teaching inspired me the most, as I confronted the issues of the day,” he says. “There was a tension between trying to protect our country and getting the best intelligence and at the same time trying to establish justice.”

Aldana has also been an active leader in the American Bar Association (ABA). He served on the ABA Law and National Security Advisory Committee and recently served on the board of the ABA Rule of Law Initiative and the ABA Commission on Diversity and Inclusion 360.

The ABA helped launch The National Judicial College in 1963. Today the college educates about 10,000 judges a year at its headquarters in Reno, Nevada, at locations around the country and online. The categories of judges the college serves – state and local, military, administrative law and tribal – decide more than 95 percent of the cases in the United States.  

The NJC Trustees were impressed with Aldana’s credentials when they selected him as the first military judge to lead the college, said trustee and search committee chair Mark Tratos. In announcing Aldana’s selection, Tratos said, “Judge Aldana’s strong connections to both the military justice system and the larger bench and bar, through his work in the ABA, make him a perfect fit.”

Aldana says Seattle University remains a guiding force in his life. “At every turn in my career, including my current position, Seattle University had a role in it.”

“At every turn in my career, including my current position, Seattle University had a role in it.”

He draws inspiration from the late William Sullivan, S.J., president of Seattle University from 1976 to 1996. Having already overseen a five-year strategic planning process, Aldana says his top priorities are financial sustainability, raising the college’s national profile and forging new partnerships with judicial and legal organizations.

“I remembered when I was a student, I asked (Father Sullivan) what his most important role was and he said, ‘I’m the beggar for the university,’” Aldana says. “Obviously he was talking about his fundraising efforts and his roles as a servant-leader. Father Sullivan doubled the endowment for the university. I’m hoping to do the same thing here.”

Benes Aldana’s Recent Career Awards

  • Department of Defense Meritorious Service Medal
  • U.S. Coast Guard Meritorious Service Medal (2 awards)
  • U.S. Coast Guard Commendation Medal (5 awards)
  • U.S. Army Commendation Medal
  • U.S. Coast Guard Achievement Medal (2 awards)
  • Department of Homeland Security General Counsel’s Award of Excellence
  • 2016 Judge of the Year Award, Asian Bar Association of Washington
  • 2016 Department of Homeland Security General Counsel’s Award of Excellence
  • 2015 Daniel K. Inouye Trailblazer Award, National Asian Pacific American Bar Association
  • 2011 Outstanding Chair Award, Fellows of the American Bar Foundation
  • 2009 Emerging Leaders Award, Filipino Community of Seattle
  • 2006 Named Fellow by the American Bar Foundation
  • 2003 Outstanding Young Military Lawyer, American Bar Association
  • 2003 Best Lawyers Under 40 Award, National Asian Pacific American Bar Association