Justice Mary Yu, ’93 J.D.
Growing up in Chicago’s Bridgeport neighborhood, an area historically inhabited by working class Irish immigrants, Mary Yu, ’93 J.D., wasn’t afforded the opportunity of seeing many people who looked like her in positions of power or significant influence, she told Notre Dame Law students this week. The daughter of a Mexican farm worker and Chinese factory employee, Yu was born at a time when minorities and women were completely devoid on high court judge rosters.
After 10 years of working for the Office of Peace and Justice for the Archdiocese of Chicago, and more than 14 years as a trial court judge, Yu was appointed the state of Washington’s first Chinese, Latina and openly gay Supreme Court Justice. Today, as she meets with young people, she said, she can’t help but make sure she is setting an example, particularly for women of color.
“I’m aware of, in a very acute way, what it means for kids to see me,” Justice Yu explained to a classroom full of first, second and third year Notre Dame Law students. “That’s been new since I’ve been a judge and then on the Supreme Court. Kids need to see themselves in others.
“I would have to say it has made me more humble, it has made me more aware of my responsibility to go to disadvantaged areas and pockets of our state that I would have never have gone to, to talk to those kids. There’s nothing like going into the valley, in eastern Washington where the farmworkers are, to actually talk to those kids and walk with them and let them know I speak Spanish. I understand. When these parents are telling these children go to school, I know what that means and I can be a symbol to them to say ‘even me’. I got to be where I’m at because I went to school and you too could. So that is what I feel makes all the difference; having a perspective, having a sense of empathy and then recognizing that I’m stuck in this skin and this look no matter what and that can I can be a role model for other people.”
To debunk myths of women in the Asian culture being automatically categorized as passive and submissive, Justice Yu said, “I always challenge young Asian women to be trial lawyers and that’s because the stereotype of us is ‘no we don’t do trial practice’, or ‘we don’t speak out loud, or we don’t use these skills’. We can and should be trial lawyers and we need to see that as much as possible.”
Justice Yu’s presence in the large lecture hall evoked a spirit of confidence and compassion, students said. Miracle Haynes, 2L, came to hear the Justice’s insight on clerkships but walked away impressed with her position on humility and kindness.
“Her point about being interested in people really demonstrates her commitment to service,” Haynes said.
Like many NDLS alumni, Justice Yu credits her success to God, Country and Notre Dame.
“Before my fingers started getting a little old, I always wore my (class) ring. I got one when I left here because I wanted it to be a reminder to me of certain values, about what I would do and what I would not do as a lawyer,” she said. “Even though I don’t wear that ring, there isn’t a day that I don’t stop and ask myself what kind of lawyer am I going to be today and I come back to the values of Notre Dame.”