A Conversation with Judge Kristy Yang

By Xeng Moua

Judge Kristy Yang is the first elected judge of Hmong ethnicity in U.S history. She is the second of three Hmong Americans to serve as a Judge in the United States. On Friday, March 30 the Investiture Ceremony to swear in Judge Kristy Yang will take place at the Milwaukee County Courthouse at noon.

XM: What made you decide to become a judge?

KY:  My decision to run for circuit court judge was premised on many reasons.  The common thread of all these reasons was my insatiable desire to not just be good but to do good.  For me, doing good means fairness and justice.  Given my background and experience, I saw value in my world view and skills, which in my estimation are likely different from what exists in the current judiciary, and I believed then and still do today that I can add value to the judiciary. 

XM:  What was the toughest part about running against a more experienced lawyer for the seat of the circuit judge?

KY:  Making decisions that could have grave consequences is part of a judge’s job. We want people on the bench who are equipped to ponderously, morally and intellectually make a fair judgment. The responsibility should not be taken lightly. We must elect judges who will instill trust and confidence in the judicial system.

I have demonstrated my aptitude to rise to the demands of serving on the Milwaukee County Circuit Court.   I possess the qualities required to thoughtfully make judgements and instill that trust and confidence.  In practice, I have distinguished myself.  I have been recognized not only by my clients but by my colleagues and judges for my hard work, and importantly, the quality of my work.

For 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, and 2017, I have been nominated and selected as a Super Lawyer Rising Star.  In 2015, I was listed as a Leading Lawyer in the Milwaukee Magazine.  In addition to my practice of law, I was a family law mediator and have experience being in the role of a neutral third party.

My skills as a mediator provides a strong foundation for my work as a circuit court judge, especially considering the current trend that less than 10% of cases go to jury trial.  Additionally, I have been recognized by the Milwaukee Bar Association and the Association of Women Lawyers for my pro bono work.  After all, it is not the number of years or the quantity but the quality of what we as community members contribute to improving our community.

XM:  What were some ways you connected with the Hmong community both locally and nationally?

KY:  Word of mouth remains the best way to communicate with the Hmong community at the local and national level.  Fortunately, social media platforms, such as Facebook, allowed me to encourage and utilize the word-of-mouth communication in mass.  Effective mass communication in the Hmong community is still in its infancy due in large part to the ever-changing Hmong family structure.

XM:  Would you ever be interested in politics and running for office?

KY:  As the adage goes, “never say never.”

XM:  What do you find difficult about being a judge? What do you find rewarding?

KY:  Every morning, as I take my seat on the bench, I am thankful and grateful for the opportunity I have to serve the community.  It is a very humbling experience and not one day goes by that I do not forget my parents’ sacrifices and life experiences that have led me to where I am today.  Every day is rewarding.

XM:  What does a typical day look like for you?

KY:  Currently, I am assigned to criminal misdemeanor.  For me, a typical day begins at 8 a.m. and ends at about 5:30 p.m.  The court shuts down over the lunch hour.  From the time the courtroom opens to the time it closes I am on the bench presiding over cases.

XM:  Have you come across other Hmong women or girls who are interested in the justice system and becoming a judge?

KY:  Yes, I have met several Hmong women and girls who aspire to become lawyers, judges, or to work in the justice system.

XM:  How does it feel to be a Hmong woman who does something out of the box? What are some of the hurdles you have overcome?

KY:  I am blessed to have had so many opportunities, some growing out of the hardships my family and I faced.  I grew up in a family of many strong women from my grandmothers, mother, and 8 sisters.

Just as important as having a strong support system of women, my father is wise beyond his years and has always been supportive of all my sisters and me.  Due in large part to this, it was normal for me to meet challenges head on and to pave my own path.

Thus, once my husband and I made the decision for me to run for judge, the challenges we faced became “normal.”  It became normal to meet complete strangers and engage in meaningful conversations with them.  This process itself was one of the biggest hurdles I have had to overcome.

XM:  Do you have any mentors or people who inspire you?

KY:  I have been blessed to have had and continue to have mentors who genuinely care about my professional growth and development.  Justice Sotomayor, when nominated to the high court, said she had hoped that as a Supreme Court Justice the richness of her experiences as a “Latina woman” would lead her to “reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.”  I understand Justice Sotomayor’s comments because while our backgrounds are unique to us, it is our respective histories that join us. Our struggles were different and yet the same.  She is one of the many people who inspire me to continue my work.

XM:  As a refugee child, what were some difficulties you faced and had to overcome?

KY:  As refugees, my family and I were strangers in a strange land. We came to the United States with nothing more than clothes on our backs, and hopes and dreams of a better life.  My parents, 10 siblings, and I suffered unspeakable acts of bigotry.

We also pursued the American Dream with a robust zeal. I would not be writing my responses to these questions were it not for the many more acts of kindness we experienced. I have a supportive family and my brothers and sisters have all lived their lives in an equally supportive environment. They are all accomplished and hardworking. Like so many other families who came here as refugees or immigrants, my family is part of the American fabric and all its’ promise for the future.  The obstacles and challenges we faced as refugees are the same but in different context of those who today continue to struggle to break from the cycle of poverty.

XM: Do you have any advice or tips for the Hmong women/girls out there striving for their own goals and dreams?

KY: My advice for anyone who wants to overcome challenges is for you to find what motivates you and find ways to be reminded of your reason(s) for motivation.  In reflecting upon my successes, I realize I am most successful when I do things for others and not for myself.  This may be because if I was to do things for myself, I would be too forgiving and accommodating but when I do things for others there are unwavering expectations.

 

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