Asians make strides in state legal system

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As I reflect on the recent 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, I contemplate how Asian-Pacific Americans (APAs) strive to contribute to MLK’s Dream.

I am an Asian-Pacific American immigration attorney, and I call Georgia home. I have practiced law in our fair state since 1994, when I first moved to Atlanta. Fresh from law school in Boston, I believed that there would be very few APAs living in Georgia. One look down Buford Highway and I realized how wrong I was. Back then, it already was a bustling hub of Asian businesses. Nearly two decades later, APA visibility has flourished. Gwinnett County now boasts an APA population of 13 percent; the newly formed city of Johns Creek is more than 23 percent! Since 2000, Georgia’s APA population has grown overall by 83 percent. APAs now are truly part of the visible fabric of Georgia.

UNTIL RECENTLY, the rise in APA representation in Georgia’s legal system has been achingly slow to catch up. In 1998, Judge Alvin T. Wong decided to run for a contested judicial seat in the State Court of DeKalb County. I remember phonebanking for him with other members of the Georgia APA Bar. When he won, Judge Wong made history when he became the first elected APA judge in the entire Southeast.

That statistic stood for more than a decade. In 2010, Judge Carla Wong McMillian, a native Augustan, was appointed to the State Court of Fayette County. She was overwhelmingly elected in 2012 to become Georgia’s only second APA elected judge. A true star, Judge McMillian recently was elevated by Gov. Nathan Deal in January to the Georgia Court of Appeals – our first APA judge to serve on a state appellate court.

However, Judge McMillian’s meteoric legal rise did not occur in a vacuum. The pool of qualified APA attorneys in Georgia has deepened. Back in 2004, Fayette County also elected Georgia’s first APA solicitor general, Jamie Inagawa. In Forsyth County, Donna Gopaul was appointed this year as our first South Asian solicitor general. U.S. Magistrate Judge Justin Anand was appointed in 2012 to serve as our first ever APA federal judge in Georgia.

BUILDING THE pipeline of APA judges in Georgia is critical to diversifying our judiciary. On Aug. 13, I was proud to assist in organizing a forum featuring Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens, U.S. Attorney Sally Yates and Justice Robert Benham, Georgia’s first African-American Supreme Court judge. Justice Benham shared with judicial aspirants that, as a minority, “You will have to work harder. You’ll have to work smarter. You’ll have to come earlier, stay later.”

As an APA attorney, that advice hit home. Earlier in my career, I often was asked if I was the interpreter or the client, rather than the attorney. That is changing. Our legal system should reflect the faces of the people we serve. Now, increasingly, the face of justice in Georgia also is Asian-Pacific American.

(The writer is the principal attorney of an immigration practice. She is co-chairwoman of the Georgia Asian American & Pacific Islander Task Force.)


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