Justice Mary Yu
Justice Mary Yu

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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