LOS ANGELES (CN) – LA County Superior Court Judge-elect Kim Nguyen remembers watching her father weep at his naturalization ceremony. Later, it informed her work as she gave legal advice to immigrants taking their nascent steps to become American citizens.
“Really doing the work I do now, helping people become citizens, brings everything back full circle," Nguyen told national public radio affiliate KPCC in November.
And during an interview with Courthouse News in the corner of a downtown L.A. cafe, Nguyen recalled how her parents had come to the United States in 1975, as refugees making their way into their adopted country’s middle class.
“My first memories are of a tiny cramped apartment on the border of Echo Park and Chinatown. My dad, his first job in this country was bussing tables at a restaurant. My mom sewed garments,” Nguyen said. “Over the years, they went back to school and through good luck, a lot of help from other people – hard work – they made their way into the middle class. That's my story.”
She added a new chapter to her family’s rich history on Election Day, prevailing in the contest for one of four seats in the Los Angeles County Superior Court. Serving close to 10 million people, it is the largest trial court in the nation.
Nguyen beat David Berger, an experienced trial lawyer from the LA County District Attorney’s Office.
Berger had the support of local law enforcement groups and prosecutors. But Nguyen was already in pole position after a resounding win in the June primaries. She cast her net wide and boasted endorsements from Democratic groups and unions.
Louie Castoria, an attorney who tussled with Nguyen in a recent trial, said Nguyen has the ability to work through the many issues that arise before a case goes to trial. He pointed to her intelligence, the ease of working with her and her ability to compromise.
“A lot depends on judicial temperament and the person's individual personality, and I think that Kim's got a great temperament and the kind of personality that will get to the heart of things and ... encourage lawyers to conduct themselves civilly,” Castoria said in a phone interview.
California has transformed into a dependably blue state, thanks in no small part to the state’s immigrant population. The last Republican to carry California in a presidential election was George H.W. Bush.
Nguyen had the backing of the Democratic establishment in a non-partisan race, and her victory resonates in a state where immigrants are encouraged to thrive.
More than 130,000 refugees came to America after the Vietnam War ended in 1975. Like Nguyen’s parents, many ended up in Camp Pendleton in San Diego – “tent city,” as it was called. And while Nguyen’s story is familiar to millions of immigrants, her ascension is anything but.
After those humble beginnings in a cramped apartment, Nguyen graduated from UCLA and then Harvard Law School. She clerked for the Ninth Circuit and later became a deputy attorney general, accumulating 16 years of experience.
Now Nguyen has etched out her own little corner of history. She will become the only active Vietnamese-American judge at the Los Angeles County Superior Court – significant in a county where 15 percent of the county's 10 million people identify as Asian, in a region where a majority of the population speaks one of 224 languages other than English at home.
It's important for the court to have a “bench that reflects that diversity or at least strives to reflect that diversity,” Nguyen said.
“I think it’s OK to say all judges are different,” she added. “They bring their own unique experiences to the bench. They bring their own perspectives, and they bring their cultural heritage and knowledge to the bench.”
But her heritage is not the only thing that sets her apart. Her lack of trial court experience was a concern for the Los Angeles Times when it endorsed Berger.
“Deputy Attorney General Kim Nguyen is keenly intelligent and capable and would also make a good judge, but could benefit from another few years of experience before taking the bench,” the Times said.
In response, Nguyen pointed to her experience in the private and public sector and in the trial and appellate courts. She was also a senior writs attorney handling civil, criminal, family and juvenile-dependency law cases.
“I think I bring a breadth of knowledge of different subject matters that will allow me to hit the ground running,” Nguyen said in the interview.
But Nguyen has only one trial under her belt. That was a legal challenge to the Attorney General's practice of collecting Schedule B tax forms from California non-profit groups and charities. The billionaire Koch Brothers successfully challenged the practice in federal court, and Nguyen litigated a similar case filed by the Thomas More Law Center.
Her role in the trial was limited and the law center persuaded U.S. District Judge Manuel Real to rule in its favor after the conclusion of an October bench trial.
Castoria represented the Thomas More Law Center. He said he was surprised to hear it was Nguyen's first trial.
“I thought she was as capable as the other members of the team,” he said.
During the interview, Nguyen rejected the idea that her inexperience as a trial lawyer would hamper her ability to do the job.
“People who understand civil litigation understand that the vast majority of civil litigation does not culminate in a trial. In fact, it’s very seldom that you actually reach that. Does that mean everything leading up to that point is insignificant or not indicative of the ability to preside over a courtroom? Of course not,” Nguyen said.
The judge-elect follows in the footsteps of Jacqueline Nguyen, who was appointed to the Ninth Circuit by President Barack Obama and took office in 2012. Also the child of refugees, the appeals court judge became the first Vietnamese-American woman to sit on the Los Angeles County Superior Court when she was appointed to the seat 14 years ago.
Castoria said he was going to watch Kim Nguyen's career closely to see what happens next.
“I'm going to miss working with her,” Castoria said.
The new judge declined to be interviewed for this profile, and the state Attorney General's Office did not respond to request for an interview.
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