Judge Jacqueline Nguyen: A Milestone Appointment
By: Jackie Bong-Wright
“Get a job you love, and you’ll never have to work a day in your life.” Does this ring true to Judge Jacqueline Nguyen? “Definitely, yes,” she said. “I was sworn in as a federal judge three months ago, and I was thrilled to take over a caseload of 400 civil cases and many other criminal matters. I’ve been working many late nights and weekends, but I wouldn’t trade this job for any other in the world.”
Judge Nguyen was appointed by President Obama to the U.S. District Court for the Central District in California. From 2002 to 2009, she served as the first Asian judge in the Superior Court for the County of Los Angeles. Since her graduation from UCLA in 1991, she has been active in the legal community. She co-founded the Asian Pacific American Bar Association. She served as its president from 1999 to 2000.
Recently, Judge Nguyen spoke at the Vietnamese American Bar Association (VABA-DC) at its second annual scholarship dinner at the WilmerHale law firm in Washington, D.C.
The association president, Caroline Nguyen, a graduate of Harvard and Columbia School of Law, said the judge’s appointment to the federal bench was “an important step forward in judicial diversity and not only a testament to the inspiring promise of the American Dream, but also a milestone for the Vietnamese American community.”
Judge Nguyen congratulated VABA-DC for the change that is taking place in the Vietnamese community in the capital area. She also urged Vietnamese Americans to participate actively in state and federal legislatures, as well as in major law firms. She said she was grateful for the many opportunities “this great nation” had offered her, her family and many other immigrants.
She also praised the “incredible resilience” of the Vietnamese people. She talked of her parents, quiet and humble boat people refugees, who toiled at two and three menial jobs to care for six children. She said they were her inspiration. “They persevered to bring us up, sacrificed themselves to give us a good education, and helped build our character. That is the ultimate education.”
Judge Nguyen echoed these words of wisdom: “We are here not merely to make a living. We are here to enrich the world, and we impoverish ourselves if we forget this.”
VABA-DC, established in 2007, is one of four VABAs that promote the professional growth and advancement of Vietnamese-American attorneys. It also encourages and facilitates the entry of Vietnamese students into the legal profession. Across the country, there are only six Vietnamese judges on the bench, four of whom are in California.
“Nationwide, people of color make up one quarter of the population, yet they make up only 10 percent of lawyers and only four percent of partners in major law firms. Well over 70 percent of all judges are white,” stated Judge Nguyen. “This lack of diversity has contributed to deep mistrust of the justice system in many minority communities, including our own.”
How to redress the situation? Judge Nguyen advised that lawyers and judges heed the words of Justice Kennedy. “The law makes a promise – neutrality. If the promise gets broken, the law as we know it ceases to exist.” Remarked Judge Nguyen: “Unless we change the bench and the bar to better reflect our nation’s diversity, we lose credibility – we lose the perception of neutrality – and that hurts all of us because we all have a stake in this system.”
Judge Nguyen insists that one of the ways to effect change is to mentor one another. “I am a firm believer in the power of mentorship because I’ve benefited from it. As a young lawyer, first in private practice and then as a federal prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney’s office, I became very involved in local bar activities, and sat on the boards of various bar associations. When I was ready to apply to the bench, they demystified the process for me.”
She continued, “The support for my appointment, both state and federal, came out of these relationships. So, being involved in organizations is not only fun and rewarding, but also helps in forming mentoring relationships that are so important in your career, no matter what you choose to do.”
The VABA-DC has the same kind of mission. Shandon Phan, a board member, announced that every year this non-profit awards scholarships to two law students who have demonstrated leadership potential and a strong commitment to serving the Vietnamese American community.
One of this year’s awardees is Caroline Pham from Modesto, California. A second-year law student at George Washington Law School in Washington, DC, Caroline has been very active in community service. She is vice-president of the GW Law Federalist Society, president of the Phi Delta Phi International Legal Fraternity, and vice-president for Outreach of the Student Bar Association. As an attorney, Caroline says she hopes to provide pro bono service to her community.
The second recipient is Julie Tong, a third-year student at the University of Maryland School of Law. She is the executive editor of the Maryland Law Journal of Race, Religion, Gender and Class. She also served as president of Maryland’s Asian Pacific American (APIA) Law Students Association. Prior to law school, she volunteered as a legal interpreter with the APIA Legal Resource Center. She says she wants to practice civil litigation and continue to help immigrant children to achieve success.
Encouraging community service, VABA-DC set the example and partnered with Boat People SOS and AALEAD to raise awareness of human trafficking. Last year, the board organized a gathering at the K St Lounge to network, strengthen community ties and raise money for programs that assist trafficked victims in Malaysia.