Judge Jacqueline Nguyen outside a court near Los Angeles City Hall. (Ken Hively / Los Angeles…)
Judge Jacqueline Nguyen had never met a lawyer before attending law school at UCLA. She fled Vietnam during the fall of Saigon with her parents and five siblings all younger than 11 and started life in the U.S. living in a tent city with other refugees at Camp Pendleton.
Now President Obama has nominated Nguyen, who two years ago became the first Vietnamese American woman to serve as a federal judge, to the United States Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit in San Francisco.
“Judge Nguyen has been a trailblazer, displaying an outstanding commitment to public service throughout her career,” Obama said.
After fleeing Vietnam, Nguyen’s parents saved enough money to open a doughnut shop in North Hollywood. Her mother cleaned dental offices at night and peeled apples for a pie company, jobs Nguyen would often help with, as her father transitioned from being a major in the South Vietnamese Army to being an overnight-shift worker at a bank and a gas attendant.
In high school, Nguyen would study between customers at the doughnut shop her parents eventually opened, a habit that helped her receive a full academic scholarship at Occidental College in Eagle Rock.
She said that working with Asian immigrants while in law school “reminded me of how lost we were,”
Nguyen began her legal career at the law firm of Musick, Peeler & Garrett LLP, where she was a commercial litigation associate from 1991 to 1994.
Then, in 1995, she joined the United States attorney’s office in the Central District of California, serving as an assistant U.S. attorney in the criminal division. There, she worked as a federal prosecutor in both the General Crimes and Public Corruption and Government Fraud sections, and was a member of the office’s Organized Crime Strike Force from 1999 to 2000. She worked on such cases as a wiretap investigation of a Russian organized crime group responsible for smuggling sex slaves into the United States from the Ukraine.
Nguyen was appointed to the state bench as a judge on the Superior Court of the County of Los Angeles in 2002. She remained a judge on that court until she was appointed to the federal bench by Obama in 2009.