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Blaine Tamaki is photographed in his office at Tamaki Law on North 16th Avenue in Yakima, Wash., Tuesday, Jan. 2, 2018. Tamaki, who has dedicated his career to fighting social injustices, was recently named to the board of regents of the Univeristy of Washington. (SHAWN GUST/Yakima Herald-Republic)

Blaine Tamaki’s family’s history weighs on him — especially the story about his father, George, who at 8 years old was sent along with his parents to an internment camp during World War II. George Tamaki was among some 117,000 people of Japanese descent — many of them U.S. citizens — sent to the camps as a result of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066.

George Tamaki was the youngest of five children. His parents lost their home, jobs and nearly all of their belongings, Blaine Tamaki, 60, recalled one recent afternoon at his Yakima law office.

“They were given 48 hours to sell everything and report to a station to be transported to a temporary center.” Tamaki said. “They were allowed one or two suitcases each and if they couldn’t squeeze it into a suitcase, they had to leave it behind.”

After three years, George Tamaki’s family was released and they returned to the San Francisco Bay area, where his father worked as a gardener. The family was forced to start over.

That story, Tamaki says, is the driving force behind his efforts as a plaintiff’s trial lawyer — work that has earned him high marks in the legal community across the state.

“When (my dad) told me that because of our race he lost his freedom, I realized as a young child that race does matter in America,” Tamaki said. “It matters so much that it could wind up depriving you of your freedom, and it made me committed to seeking justice for all people regardless of their race or ethnicity, or sex or sexual preference, or any other trait that has been discriminated against throughout history.”

Calm, soft-spoken and seemingly reserved — traits indicative of Japanese culture — Tamaki doesn’t come across as the typical aggressive trial lawyer. But his demeanor can be misleading. Other lawyers consider him tenacious, thorough and always prepared. His methodical approach often has allowed him to secure large settlements for his clients before a case goes to trial.

He’s tackled hundreds of cases involving injury, discrimination, civil rights violations and sexual abuse, including one which resulted in a record-breaking $167.3 million settlement against the Northwest Jesuits. Seeking justice for some 450 victims who where sexually abused by priests at boarding schools on Native American reservations run by the religious order, the settlement also required the Northwest Jesuits to admit fault, formally apologize to each victim and to stop referring to them as “alleged victims.”

“Blaine is methodical in his trial preparation, leaving no stone unturned, relentless in his work ethic and absolutely committed to obtaining justice for his clients,” said University of Washington law professor Bill Bailey, also a former trial lawyer.

Passion for justice

Tamaki was born in 1957 on the campus of the University of California, Berkley, where his father earned a doctorate in entomology, the study of insects.

He moved to Yakima in 1965, when he was 8. His father landed a job with the U.S. Department of Agriculture helping area farmers adopt pest control methods that didn’t require the use of chemicals.

Tamaki graduated from Davis High School in 1975. Wanting to help people, he began studying medicine at the University of Washington but he struggled in physics. So, he gave up on medical school and instead earned a degree in economics and later entered the university’s law school.

“I figured out that instead of helping people through medicine, I could help people through being a good lawyer” Tamaki said. “I had a passion for social justice issues so it would fit well with my passion to change the world, make a difference.”

He was admitted into UW’s School of Law under the affirmative action program in 1979. The contentious program was designed to help overcome racial discrimination by requiring government agencies, including schools, to hire or accept a fixed percentage of minorities.

“I am a product of the affirmative action program that has been so controversial in the past,” Tamaki said. “But I give it credit for opening the door for me, for allowing me an opportunity to prove myself as a trial lawyer.”

Adonis Neblett, a lawyer for the state of Minnesota’s pollution control agency who attended law school with Tamaki, remembers his former classmate and friend routinely studying late into the night, never missing class and always being prepared.

“I’ll put it this way, when I was leaving the law school, he’d still be there — he believed in putting in the work,” Neblett said.

As an example of Tamaki’s commitment to education, Neblett points to a real property course they both took. After the first trimester, he stopped attending class while Tamaki continued to show up. And when final exams came around, Neblett said he was scrambling at the last minute to find supplemental material to prepare while Tamaki — always studious and organized — confidently headed to the test.

“Blaine had it together,” Neblett said. “I’m pretty sure that spills over into his practice as an attorney.”

Tamaki said he enjoyed the Seattle area but only had one job offer out of law school — here in Yakima at Velikanje Moore & Shore law firm.

“I didn’t have any other job opportunities other than returning to my hometown,” he said. “I had to support myself so that’s why I moved back to Yakima. I stayed with my parents and worked to establish my independence.”

And he did. About 12 years later with much litigation under his belt, Tamaki started his own firm in Yakima. He now has two other offices, one in Kennewick and another in Bellevue, and employs seven attorneys and nine support staff.

Bailey, who was working as a trial lawyer when he met Tamaki 20 years ago, described him as “the hardest worker on the planet” who remains humble despite his achievements. For example, Tamaki’s office has handled more than 500 sexual abuse cases alone.

“He’s a workhorse, not a show horse,” Bailey said.

Balancing act

Tamaki’s wife of 27 years, Precy, says there are two Blaine Tamakis — the trial lawyer and the family man.

The couple has three children, Beau Schott, 36, Briana, 25, and Trey, 19. Schott, Tamaki’s stepson, works making smokeless cigarettes in Seattle. Briana works in human resources for Amazon and Trey is a UW student.

The family often attends sporting events — Blaine Tamaki is a huge fan of Washington sports teams, including the Yakima SunKings

“He’s a SunKings fanatic,” she said.

That passion for family and sports is evident in his tidy law office on 16th Avenue in Yakima — a shelf is filled with framed letters from his children, photos of family and, of course, Mariners, Seahawks and other sports memorabilia, including Ken Griffy Jr. and Willie “Big Mac” McCovey baseball cards. There’s even a baseball signed by Willie Mays.

Though it’s sometimes a balancing act between family and work, family always comes first, Tamaki said.

Last year, the Tamakis spent five months in Seattle while Trey underwent three rounds of chemotherapy after being diagnosed with cancer. The therapy created hip complications and the 19-year-old recently had a hip replacement — the couple is in Seattle with Trey now.

Doctors say chemotherapy was successful, said Tamaki, who’s excited to spend more time with his youngest son now that he’s been appointed to UW’s Board of Regents.

“Being a regent is cool because I’ll get to see him on campus,” Tamaki said. “It gives me a chance to see him in his college years.”

Precy Tamaki says being married to a trial lawyer has its challenges. She recalls him diving into his work weeks at a time, rarely seeing him.

After spending late nights at the office, he would come home with folders of work for further review and practice oral arguments in front of the mirror, she said.

“He’d stay up late,” she recalled. “I remember his first case on his own, and he worked almost night and day and I would bring food to his office and I’d bring Briana there so she could spend time with him.”

Before getting married, she attended a seminar with him on what to expect from a husband who is a trial lawyer.

“We made it and we’re still together,” she said. “You just have to be patient and understanding.”

Common bond

Tamaki’s efforts go beyond the courtroom. He served as vice president of the Washington Association for Justice and on the Washington State Commission on Asian Pacific Affairs under Gov. Dan Evans. He also helped found the Latino Vote Project and was instrumental in helping efforts to get more Latinos to vote and elected to office in Yakima.

Through thousands of dollars in donations,Tamaki supported the group’s effort to make face-to-face contact with people who had not voted in the past in order to educate them about the process and build relationships, said Carlos Lugos, who served as director of the Latino Vote Project.

“That was an idea that sat well with him and I believe that’s what led to his investment in the project,” Lugos said.

Those and other social justice efforts hit a familiar chord with Tamaki, who says he feels a common bond with people of color given his family’s experience with discrimination. The devastating impact of the Japanese internment on his father and grandparents has taught him to speak up for the rights others.

“The majority of Americans did not speak up,” he said of when Japanese-Americans were placed in the camps. “That was one of the most shameful parts of (our) history — we all stood by in silence while denying Americans their constitutional rights.”

He fears history may be repeating itself in the way Muslim communities are being treated in America.

“I am particularly sensitive to what is happening to the Muslim Americans in the United States because they are victim of the same type of animosity and racial hatred which happened to the Japanese American during World War II,” he said.

Over the years, Tamaki said he’s lost several cases at trial, and regrets every one because justice wasn’t brought to his clients.

“I’ve lost so many cases and I shed so many tears because there’s nothing worse than losing a case,” he said. “I lose faith in humanity after I lose trials because jurors reject my case.”

He also knows about success, and with each win is another step toward his goal of a community “where race doesn’t matter, where we all get along and where we all work together.”

But winning cases isn’t the end goal for Tamaki — it’s more about “holding powerful interests accountable for discrimination, for negligence or reckless behavior causing injury.”

Neblett said Tamaki’s reward comes from providing justice to “the underdog.”

“That, I think, provides him with tremendous satisfaction, not just professionally but personally,” Neblett said. “It’s not just a win — it’s providing a person justice. In those moments, he feels like he’s doing God’s work.”

Phil Ferolito can be reached at 509-577-7749 or pferolito@yakimaherald.com. Follow him on Twitter at philipferolito@twitter.com.