Wednesday wasn’t first time Benes Z. Aldana set foot inside The National Judicial College (he’d attended classes), but it was his first time as president-to-be.
Related article: Get to know Benes Aldana
The former chief trial judge and captain in the U.S. Coast Guard was unanimously selected by the NJC’s Board of Trustees earlier this month to become the college’s ninth chief executive. He arrived in Reno yesterday, April 19.
Aldana, 47, will officially take over as president May 1, succeeding Chad C. Schmucker, who is retiring after three-plus years leading the College. The first Asian Pacific (Filipino) American chief judge in U.S. military history, he will be the second person of color and first military judge to lead the College.
The new president, who has also held leadership roles with the American Bar Association (ABA), said he is resolved to leading the College to a renewed sense of purpose and to forging new partnerships.
“With current attacks on the rule of law and on the independence of the judiciary, I cannot think of a better calling than to devote my time and energy to ensure that the guardians of our rule of law are taught not only the knowledge and skills to effectively carry out their judicial duties, but to instill in them the courage to make difficult decisions,” he said.
Aldana’s selection came after a nationwide search that began late last year.
Mark Tratos, chair of the Board of Trustees’ Search and Transition Committee, said: “We were keenly aware of the increased public scrutiny the American judiciary faces in these politically turbulent times. The College’s mission—to advance justice for all citizens through well-prepared, highly skilled and well-trained judges— is more critical than ever. Judge Aldana’s strong connections to both the military justice system and the larger bench and bar, through his work in the ABA, makes him a perfect fit.”
Board Chair Wm. T. (Bill) Robinson III, past president of the ABA (2011-12), said:
“The ABA is the founding partner of the NJC and Benes is a highly respected, proven ABA leader. He will be a tremendous catalyst in building an even stronger relationship going forward.”
Chair-Elect Kim Dean Hogrefe said: “The board was gratified to have a pool of such distinguished candidates. We were impressed by Judge Aldana’s experience and accomplishments. What also stood out was his palpable enthusiasm. It was clear how much he wanted to get started on accomplishing great things for the College.”
Aldana has served with the Coast Guard since 1994 in multiple leadership positions. As chief trial judge, headquartered in Washington, D.C., he presided over felony trials throughout the country while overseeing a trial judiciary composed of 10 judges.
He is also an alumnus of the NJC, having completed five courses since 2000: Advanced Evidence for the Military Trial Judiciary; Enhancing Judicial Bench Skills; Scientific Evidence and Expert Testimony; Judicial Philosophy and the American Law for the Military Trial Judiciary; Ethical Issues in the Law: A Novel Approach; and Evidence for Military Judges.
Prior to being named the Coast Guard’s chief trial judge, he served as an appellate judge (2015-16) and trial judge (2005-2011). Before that, he was chief legal officer of the Eighth Coast Guard District in New Orleans, Louisiana. In that role, he oversaw the largest field legal office in the Coast Guard, providing legal support to more than 4,700 personnel at more than 80 operational units in 26 states.
Before his posting in New Orleans, he served as chief counsel of the Legal Engagements Division of the Defense Department’s U.S. Africa Command, which is based in Stuttgart, Germany. He led the U.S. military’s efforts in advancing the rule of law by working with African partner nation militaries and organizations such as the International Institute of Humanitarian Law and the Defense Institute of International Legal Studies.
His many other assignments within the Coast Guard include having served as commanding officer of Coast Guard Personnel Services Support Unit in Seattle and as executive officer of Coast Guard Base Seattle. His many honors include the Department of Defense Meritorious Service Medal.
In the aftermath of 9/11, he was deployed as a legal adviser to the Department of Defense Criminal Investigation Task Force in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, conducting criminal investigations against suspected terrorists detained by U.S. forces. He also served as a trial attorney for the U.S. Department of Justice’s Environmental Enforcement Section.
Outside of his military service, Aldana has been active in leadership of the American Bar Association, which helped launch the NJC in 1963 and still supports the College financially. He is currently a member of the ABA Law and National Security Advisory Committee. He recently completed service on the board of the ABA Rule of Law Initiative and on the ABA Commission on Diversity and Inclusion 360. He is a past chair of the ABA Solo, Small Firm and General Practice Division. He also served as assembly speaker of the ABA Young Lawyers Division and was a member of the ABA House of Delegates.
A Fellow of the American Bar Foundation, he served as co-chair of the Washington State Fellows, and in 2011 he was awarded the Outstanding State Chair Award by the American Bar Foundation.
While stationed in Seattle, he served as president of the Asian Bar Association of Washington. He was a co-founding board member of the Filipino Lawyers of Washington, chair-elect of the Washington State Bar Legal Assistance to Military Personnel Section, and he was the Washington State Supreme Court’s appointee to the Civil Legal Aid Oversight Committee.
Aldana is a 1991 cum laude graduate of Seattle University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in political science. While in college he served as student body president and as a congressional intern on Capitol Hill. He received his Juris Doctor in 1994 from the University of Washington School of Law.
He is admitted to practice in Washington state and before the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces and the U.S. Supreme Court.
More about Benes Z. Aldana
Read more details of his career here.
- Born in Angeles City, Philippines. He and his brothers immigrated to the United States when he was 10 years old after his father, a member of the U.S. Navy, was stationed in Maryland. His family then moved to Oak Harbor, Washington, near Seattle.
- His middle initial stands for Zapanta
- Has three siblings, including a twin brother who is also a lawyer
- Married his high school sweetheart, Rowena Sevilla.
- Son Ehrik is a senior at Yale University who is expected to graduate with a degree in political science next fall.
On the bench
- Chief Trial Judge, U.S. Coast Guard, 2016-2017
- Appellate Judge, U.S. Coast Guard Court of Criminal Appeals, 2015-2016
- Trial Judge, U.S. Coast Guard, 2005-2011
Awards and other recognition
- Department of Defense Meritorious Service Medal
- Coast Guard Meritorious Service Medal (2 awards)
- Coast Guard Commendation Medal (5 awards)
- Army Commendation Medal
- Coast Guard Achievement Medal (2 awards)
- Commandant’s Letter of Commendation (2 awards)
- 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
- University of Washington School of Law, Juris Doctor, 1994
- Seattle University, Bachelor of Arts in Political Science (cum laude), 1991
What others say about Benes Aldana
“He is one of the most respected individuals that I know. He is a go-to guy. If there is a tough job, Benes is the person to do it. Everything he does is done with excellence, integrity and vision. He is committed to judicial education and I think he is aware of issues facing all judges. I hold him in very high regard.”
- Judge Bernice Donald, United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, Memphis, Tennessee
“I’ve known Benes for a number of years, and he is an extraordinary leader, both in the military and as a longtime volunteer with the ABA. He served very effectively as chair of the ABA’s Solo, Small Firm and General Practice division. He’s a man of integrity. He is an extremely hard worker and will get results. I’m pleased to learn of his selection to this very important position.”
- Jack Rives, executive director, American Bar Association
“Throughout his career, Captain Aldana has exhibited extraordinary commitment, outstanding legal and leadership skills, and professionalism in all of his career endeavors in the law and in his community. He has a well-established reputation for balance and integrity. We look forward to continuing our great relationship with the NJC under Capt. Aldana’s leadership.”
- Mary McQueen, president, National Center for State Courts
“Captain Aldana is widely respected by people from all walks of life, and through his substantial and lasting accomplishments he has served as a role model and inspiration to the judicial and legal communities. He is a visionary who will lead The National Judicial College to its next level of growth as an exceptional learning institution for judges throughout the country and the world.”
- Judge Eileen Kato (Ret.), King County District Court, Seattle, Washington