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2 Asian American Women Named as Judges

LOS ANGELES

Courts: The first women from Vietnam and Korea to be appointed join a changing California judiciary.

August 18, 2002|JEAN GUCCIONE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Jacqueline H. Nguyen could not have predicted her future on the day in 1975 when she and her family huddled inside a U.S. military helicopter as they escaped war-torn Saigon.

Later, in the United States, her parents worked around the clock to save enough money to open a doughnut shop in North Hollywood. Nguyen studied between customers, won a full academic scholarship to college and went to law school, though she had never met an attorney.

The 37-year-old federal prosecutor was appointed Tuesday to the Los Angeles County Superior Court, where she will become the first Vietnamese American woman to serve on the California bench.

She will be joined by another Asian American immigrant, Tammy Chung Ryu, 41, whose judicial appointment on Friday will make her the first female Korean American state judge in California.

Both women immigrated to California as children, helped their parents run small family businesses, attended the same law school and became respected attorneys. Their appointments by Gov. Gray Davis represent the changing ethnic and gender composition of the California judiciary.

"I'm proud that these well-qualified individuals also reflect the great diversity of California," Davis said last week.

Since taking office in 1998, Davis has appointed a higher percentage of women and minority group members to the bench than any previous governor, according to a statistical analysis prepared by his office.

Of his 222 judicial appointments, 34% are women, 13% Latinos, 10% African American and 7% Asian American, the statistics show.

Nguyen's parents arrived at Camp Pendleton with six children younger than 11, no job prospects and $5 in their pockets. Her mother did not speak English.

Their first home was a tent they shared with two other Vietnamese families on the military base.

The Nguyens later settled in Montrose, where young Jacqueline excelled in school and helped her mother at night cleaning dental offices. Her father, who had been a major in the South Vietnamese Army, worked an overnight shift at a bank and also pumped gas to feed his family.

Despite their hardships, Nguyen speaks of the many opportunities afforded her in the United States. She said she cannot picture what her life might have been like, had her family remained in Vietnam--except that her father probably would have been imprisoned or executed when the war ended.

After graduating from Occidental College and UCLA Law School, Nguyen was a litigation associate at the Los Angeles law firm of Musick, Peeler & Garrett. She joined the U.S. attorney's office in 1995 and is now deputy chief of the general crimes section.

Until this spring, when her mother sold the doughnut shop, Nguyen could be found on weekends behind the counter, helping out at Foster's Donuts, at Victory Boulevard and Vineland Avenue.

"That really grounded me in reality," she said. "I have gone so far and yet at the same time I have a very constant reminder of how much she really sacrificed and really where I came from to get to this point in my life."

Nguyen, her husband, Pio Kim, also a federal prosecutor, and their 3-year-old son live in Studio City.

Like Nguyen, Ryu left her homeland at age 9 and settled with her family in the United States. Her parents owned a small west Oakland grocery store that Ryu managed while in school.

Ryu graduated from UC Berkeley and UCLA Law School, then joined the state attorney general's office in Los Angeles, where she is a supervisor in the health, education and welfare section.

After the 1992 Los Angeles riots, Ryu said, "The Korean American community felt helpless. They realized we needed to gain some influence."

Over the next decade, older Korean Americans encouraged the next generation to run for elective office and become more involved in the larger community. "One of the reasons I applied [for a judgeship] was because we lack people on the bench," Ryu said.

Ryu and her husband, James Ryu, who publishes a Korean American magazine, have two children, 6 and 11, and live in Lomita.

In their early years, both women say they looked to other Asian American attorneys to provide role models because few, if any, existed within their own immigrant communities.

In law school, Nguyen interned at the Asian Pacific American Legal Center of Southern California and helped immigrants. She recalls the immigrants, all recently arrived, being "enormously appreciative" of what little help she could offer them. "It reminded me of how lost we were," she said.

As an undergraduate, Ryu assisted the attorneys who secured reparations for Japanese Americans interned during World War II.

Through that experience, she said, "I realized that attorneys can practically change history."

Now, she and Nguyen are writing their own chapters and leading the way for other Asian American women pursuing legal careers. Century City attorney Deana Chuang, 29, co-chairwoman of the Asian Pacific American Women Lawyers Alliance, was thrilled with Davis's latest judicial appointments.

"It's nice to have one of your own make it," Chuang said. "It expands the possibilities of what I see for myself."

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