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Justice Mary Yu shares her story, offers students inspiration at Gonzaga School of Law breakfast

UPDATED: Sat., Sept. 29, 2018

By Johnathan Curley The Spokesman-Review

Sanskruti Tomar, a Gonzaga student double majoring in criminal justice and theater arts, couldn’t wait to hear Washington Supreme Court Justice Mary Yu talk on her home turf.

“To see another queer woman of color in that position is so inspiring,” Tomar said. “I’ve looked up to her for years.”

Speaking to a small group of law students, undergraduates from Gonzaga and Eastern Washington University and Spokane-area high-schoolers Saturday morning, Yu shared her story of becoming the first Asian, first Latina and first member of the LGBTQ community on the Washington state Supreme Court.

Her appearance at the Gonzaga School of Law was organized as part of the Amplifying Voices initiative.

Justice Yu’s path to the Capitol Campus in Olympia began on the south side of Chicago in 1957 as the daughter to two immigrant parents – her mother, a native of Mexico, and father, from China.

“I didn’t know anybody who went to college and I didn’t have any vision for myself in terms of where I was going,” Yu said. “It took me a long time to figure out who I wanted to be and what I wanted to do with my life.”

After attending Dominican University, she served the Catholic church as a community organizer for ten years until a fellow local organizer – who would go on to be the U.S.’s first African American president – set out for Harvard.

She followed suit, and pursued law at Notre Dame, which netted her a Juris Doctor degree and role as the deputy chief of Staff to King County prosecutor Norm Maleng, according to the Washington Courts website.

Seven years into the job, a retiring judge came to her with a question: What about replacing me? But Yu recounted her reluctance because of her sexual orientation, saying, “People like me don’t become judges.”

Then-Washington state Gov. Gary Locke approached her with another question: What do you really want to do at the end of the day?

“I just want to do good,” she told him. But that also meant revealing another part of herself to the public.

“The first time that I had to be out was when I was running for my first campaign when I was appointed as a trial judge,” she said. “I wasn’t intending to run as a gay person, because I was just running as a lawyer who wanted to be a judge – but the person who was running against me made that an issue, so I had to come to terms with that.

“It was just a part of my identity in a very public way, and I still am always having to pinch myself because I can’t believe that I’m sitting in this chair with eight other people and I’m the first of so many. Every time I sit in that chair, I feel an awesome sense of responsibility because of that.”

And since that same responsibility carried her to the highest court in Washington in May of 2014, she has continued to be a leading voice in the court.

“There’s nine of us, and we fight all the time with each other,” said Yu with a laugh.

“That is what you want, you want a winning debate on every single issue that comes before the court, so you want different voices and different perspectives.”

But outside of the courtroom, Yu serves as an inspiration for others through her values and rise from the South Side to a Supreme seat.

“It’s a very inspiring story for someone like me who also comes from that type of background,” said Dante Tyler, ASEWU Eastern Washington University’s student body president.

“Having that type of conversation going – asking questions, seeing the people who are successful with it, and how they are still going and reaching their goals can affect me and what I can do,” he added.

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