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Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's uplifting perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Monday, October 24th, 2022

Meet Washington State Supreme Court Justice Mary Yu, a trailblazer in our judiciary

This Jan­u­ary, after run­ning unop­posed, Jus­tice Mary Yu will offi­cial­ly embark on her sec­ond term and eighth year on the bench of the Wash­ing­ton State Supreme Court. Yet, the jus­tice remarks that until the day she was appoint­ed to the bench, she believed that “kids like [her didn’t] grow up to be Supreme Court Justices.”

As the first Asian, the first Lati­na, and the first mem­ber of the LGBTQ+ com­mu­ni­ty to sit on the bench of the high­est court in the land, Yu is a trailblazer.

The daugh­ter of a Mex­i­can farm­hand and a Chi­nese fac­to­ry work­er, Yu was raised on the south­side of Chica­go. She says that grow­ing up in the low­er work­ing class com­mu­ni­ty deeply instilled val­ues of fam­i­ly, inde­pen­dence, and hard work in her. With the encour­age­ment of a high school teacher, Yu turned her sights on becom­ing the first in her fam­i­ly to attend college.

Hav­ing grown up going to Catholic schools, Yu asso­ci­at­ed the desire to do good and com­mu­ni­ty with faith. For that rea­son, Yu earned her B.A. in reli­gious stud­ies from Domini­can Uni­ver­si­ty and her M.A. in the­ol­o­gy from Loy­ola University.

Although Yu doesn’t apply reli­gious doc­trine in deci­sions, she said that her reli­gious per­spec­tive has shaped her world­view and who she is today.

“The thing I learned most… through my faith,” said the Jus­tice, “has been a sense of social responsibility.”

Direct­ly after grad­u­at­ing, Yu began serv­ing in the Arch­dio­cese of Chicago’s Peace and Jus­tice office, where she would lat­er be appoint­ed as direc­tor. Yu’s team “built the office from the bot­tom up,” lead­ing the Archdiocese’s efforts to “exam­ine the sys­temic caus­es of pover­ty.” For ten years, Yu sup­port­ed efforts to address issues as diverse as racism, hous­ing access, and health­care access in Chicago.

“I thought I need­ed anoth­er set of tools,” said Yu.

“That’s what led me to law school, because the law real­ly doesn’t care what you per­son­al­ly think, right? The law requires us to do the right thing.”

Upon grad­u­at­ing from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Notre Dame’s law school in 1993, Yu began work­ing for the King Coun­ty Prosecutor’s office, where she served in the civ­il divi­sion and rapid­ly worked her way up to become the Deputy Chief of Staff.

At this point, serv­ing as a judge, much less a Supreme Court jus­tice, was not on Yu’s radar. How­ev­er, in 2000, retir­ing King Coun­ty Supe­ri­or Court Judge Jan­ice Nie­mi invit­ed Yu to apply for her position.

“My first response in my own mind was I could nev­er do that. I mean, that’s just not part of what kids like me grow up to become,” recount­ed Yu.

Unsure of whether she could win an elec­tion in King Coun­ty as a woman of col­or and win, Yu ulti­mate­ly applied at the urg­ing of her col­leagues and Gov­er­nor Gary Locke, Wash­ing­ton’s first Chi­nese Amer­i­can governor.

She won the elec­tion and spent the next four­teen years pre­sid­ing over a diverse array of crim­i­nal and civ­il cas­es as a King Coun­ty Supe­ri­or Court tri­al judge, includ­ing the legal chal­lenge to Tim Eyman’s I‑776, the first ini­tia­tive that NPI’s Per­ma­nent Defense project worked against after its formation.

“It was a remark­able expo­sure to our whole sys­tem of jus­tice,” said Yu.

Even after join­ing the Supe­ri­or Court, Yu said that the prospect of mov­ing up to the Supreme Court did­n’t occur to her, until, in 2014, her long-time col­league and now Chief Jus­tice Stephen Gon­za­lez encour­aged Yu to apply to fill the vacan­cy left by Jus­tice Jim John­son, who stepped down because of health concerns.

“It was the same doubt, you know?” said Yu.

“A woman of col­or has nev­er been elect­ed statewide, much less a lesbian.”

Nev­er­the­less, Yu decid­ed to apply in the inter­est of pro­vid­ing Gov­er­nor Jay Inslee with a diverse pool of appli­cants. In 2014, she was appoint­ed to the court and was retained by vot­ers in the posi­tion in 2014 and 2016.

“I’m very grate­ful to be in this posi­tion. I nev­er take it for grant­ed and it’s a real priv­i­lege to serve peo­ple in this way,” said Yu.

The Jus­tice says that her proud­est moments on the court include issu­ing a unan­i­mous let­ter of com­ment after the June 2020 mur­der of George Floyd and decid­ing opin­ion in a case of search and seizures.

On the flip side, there are dif­fi­cult aspects of the court such as frus­trat­ing out­comes and the slow pace with which progress moves when laws lag behind.

“Because Wash­ing­ton State has opt­ed to elect their judges, I feel a respon­si­bil­i­ty to make sure that peo­ple know who I am and that peo­ple will not be afraid to hold me account­able,” said Yu.

To main­tain this trans­paren­cy, Yu main­tains a busy sched­ule of pub­lic engage­ments and extracur­ric­u­lar obligations.

Aside from men­tor­ing young attor­neys, law clerks, law stu­dents, and the Seat­tle Girls’ School Mock Tri­al team, the jus­tice serves as a dis­tin­guished jurist in res­i­dence and teacher at Seat­tle Uni­ver­si­ty School of Law, and co-chairs the Lead­er­ship Insti­tute of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Wash­ing­ton, Wash­ing­ton State Bar Asso­ci­a­tion, and the Wash­ing­ton State Supreme Court’s Minor­i­ty and Jus­tice Commission.

The Jus­tice also chairs the Board for Judi­cial Administration’s Pub­lic Trust and Con­fi­dence Com­mit­tee, and served on the board of FareStart (a non-prof­it fight­ing hunger, pover­ty, and job­less­ness in North Amer­i­ca) for almost a decade.

“I believe dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives make our courts bet­ter. The more robust debate, the bet­ter our deci­sions,” said Yu.

For that rea­son, Yu empha­sizes the impor­tance of elect­ing and appoint­ing jus­tices and rep­re­sen­ta­tives with diverse experiences.

On a per­son­al note, the jus­tice points out cas­es deal­ing with issues like court fees and fam­i­ly struc­ture where her lived expe­ri­ences have added essen­tial nuance to dis­cus­sions pre­ced­ing com­plex and sig­nif­i­cant decisions.

This diver­si­ty of thought is espe­cial­ly impor­tant in the judi­cial are­na, where deci­sions made on one day set prece­dent that influ­ence mil­lions of lives for decades and some­times gen­er­a­tions to come.

Hope­ful­ly, with the exam­ple set by lead­ers like Yu, “kids like her” won’t doubt that they, too, can become state Supreme Court jus­tices if they wish.

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