St. Paul lawyer sworn in as Minnesota's first Hmong-American judge
ST. PAUL — Sophia Vuelo is blunt when she describes the state her family was in when they left a refugee camp in Thailand some 40 years ago to relocate to the United States.
"We didn't have a dime to our name. ... We truly were poorer than a church mouse," Vuelo recalled this week at her new office in the Ramsey County Courthouse in downtown St. Paul.
But they were welcomed warmly by a Lutheran church congregation in Eau Claire, Wis., which helped the family of eight — Vuelo, her six older siblings and her mother — find housing, enroll in school, and learn the language and landscape of their new home.
Fast-forward four decades, and Vuelo, 46, is preparing to enter another new landscape.
After working for nearly 20 years as an attorney in both the private and public sector, the Maplewood mother of two was recently appointed as the newest member on the Ramsey County District Court bench by Gov. Mark Dayton. She is the first Hmong-American to serve as a judge in Minnesota, and only the third to hold such a position in the United States.
On Thursday morning, Jan. 4, she was publicly sworn in at a ceremony at the Landmark Center in downtown St. Paul. She begins presiding over cases later this month.
With her family beaming in the front row of the large audience that came to witness the historic event, and her new colleagues from the 2nd Judicial District standing behind her, Vuelo teared up as she thanked the people who supported her and shared how she had arrived at her new post.
She occasionally addressed the crowd in Hmong and had special advice for young people.
"Never let your circumstances or your birthplace define who you are, and don't let it prevent you from dreaming big dreams," Vuelo said.
Before she addressed the audience, a former high school classmate, a judge on the Minnesota Court of Appeals and a Brooklyn Park City Council member elaborated about how Vuelo had earned her stripes over the years.
Judge Michael Kirk characterized her as exceptionally hard-working with a solid understanding of the human condition.
"She has the temperament necessary to be a good judge and the people of Ramsey County and the state of Minnesota will be well served by Judge Vuelo," Kirk said. "In the words of the Irish, 'May your head be cool and your heart warm.'"
A long road
While acknowledging that the appointment is an honor, Vuelo is quick to point out that it's not one she has long aspired to achieve. Steeped for nearly nearly two decades in the legal field working as both a prosecutor and public defender, Vuelo said she started to set her sights on the judiciary about four years ago. She applied three times before landing the spot.
"I just started to realize how important it is that the people who make these big decisions live in our community, understand our community, and come from our community," Vuelo said. "That's when it started to dawn on me that I had the potential to be that person on the bench; that I had enough legal experience and life experience to make good, fair decisions."
And while she believes all her judicial colleagues strive to deliver justice, it's important that people whose lives intersect with the judicial system see themselves reflected in the people behind the bench, Vuelo added.
"Our legal system is only as strong as the community's belief that its a system ... that treats everyone equally," Vuelo said. "So from that standpoint, it's important to have qualified judges from various legal backgrounds and life backgrounds, because how else can we ensure that the legal system (fairly) represents the collective experiences of (everyone) in our community?"
It was her combined career and life experience that Vuelo believes persuaded the Minnesota Commission on Judicial Selection to push her through to the final round of the application process and for Dayton to ultimately appoint her to the post late last year.
After graduating from then-Hamline University School of Law in 1998, Vuelo took a job working as a special assistant county attorney in Ramsey County. She later worked as an assistant city prosecutor in Rochester before getting hired as a public defender in Ramsey County. She went on to form her own St. Paul law firm — Vuelo Law — in 2006, which specialized in juvenile protection, family and criminal law.
She sees her time as the youngest member of a poor, hard-working family of refugees as equally important to what she'll bring to her role as a judge.
"Both (your personal and professional backgrounds) help you to understand the cases before you," Vuelo said. "I grew up with very humble beginnings so I know something about living in the projects. I know something about being that kid who was receiving free or reduced lunch. But I also know something about accountability. I also know what it means to work hard, to make good decisions, to learn from one's mistakes and to remove oneself from bad situations."
"Hopefully, those life experiences are helpful for me to better understand some of the individuals that might appear in front of me," she said.
But ultimately, her decisions as a judge will be dictated by the law, Vuelo added.
Finding consistency behind the bench
To prepare for the role, Vuelo shadowed several judges, accompanied a police officer on a ride-along, visited the Ramsey County jail, spent a day in a St. Paul high school and visited areas of the city with higher densities of low-income housing.
Her goal, she said, is to know the community she is serving as well as possible and then apply the law consistently to those who appear before her.
"Justice to me means being consistently fair, consistently respectful ... treating everyone consistently equal," Vuelo said. "I think the word 'consistently' is really important because without it individuals ... feel there is no justice when they see the same facts lead to different results."
Dayton has appointed a little more than half the judges now serving in the 2nd Judicial District. The bench is increasingly diverse and is now composed of 13 women and 16 men, according to the Minnesota Judicial Branch.
Fourteen judges in Ramsey County self-identified as white in information collected by the state; three identified as Asian, two as African-American and two as Hispanic. Eight did not disclose a race or ethnicity.
Ramsey County Chief District Justice John Guthmann said Vuelo's appointment is a welcome addition.
"In a city like St. Paul known as a big, small town it's important to have all facets of our community represented on our bench," Guthmann said during Thursday's ceremony. "The Hmong community has been ... a vital part of the fabric of our community ... so it's with great pride we welcome Judge Vuelo as both the first Hmong judge in the 2nd Judicial District and also in the state of Minnesota."
He also offered her a bit of advice earlier in the week as she prepares to transition from arguer to decider.
"Be humble and listen," he said.
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