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.