By Assunta Ng
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Justice Mary Yu’s portrait speaks a thousand words.
It illustrates that the Washington State Supreme Court system had been dominated by whites and males for close to a century. That’s changing.
Now, the court is diverse with a female majority of seven women and two men.
The portrait, recently unveiled at Seattle University (SU)’s Law School on Nov. 3, reflects Yu’s journey not only in justice, but diversity, family history, and service.
“It is strange to see this portrait of myself—a little embarrassing and yet every time I look at it, I see my ancestors,” said Yu, of Chinese and Mexican descent. “I see the dreams that led them to this country. Despite the strange feeling of seeing oneself in this portrait, I have forced myself to get past it because it represents something larger than me. It represents an immigrant story.”
Appointed in 2014 and reelected in 2016, Yu represents many firsts for the Washington Supreme Court—including being the first Asian, first Latina, first woman of color, and first LGBTQ justice.
Yu’s service is extensive, powerful, and impactful. She served on the University of Washington School of Law’s Gates Public Service Program for four years, and is devoted to being a Seattle Girls’ School Mock Trial judge for the past 14 years. On and off the bench, she mentors young attorneys, law clerks, and students. Over the course of 21 years, she has mentored 250 law graduates including several law clerks for her and other justices at the Supreme Court. Some of the attorneys are now elected officials, prosecutors, and prominent attorneys for major corporations.
“[The portrait] represents opportunity for all, and it represents the importance of mentorship,” said Yu. “I could not have traveled the path that I have, without mentors. Mentors who invested in me as a person, a lawyer, and a judge.
”Mentors like Norm Maleng, Ruth Woo, Bobbe Bridge, and friends like Anne Levinson, Lisa Brodoff, Sharon Sakamoto…who taught me to have confidence and courage and who boldly assert that people like me must have a voice and a place in this world.”
Yu also acknowledged the support she received from law clerks and interns, and “students—who don’t realize how much they teach me about the law, relationships, and the world.”
Annette Clark, dean of SU Law School, shared Yu’s story as the Distinguished Jurist in Residence. At an orientation for law students, Clark said she and many speakers could be replaced, but not Yu. She would go above and beyond to speak to students—in one instance, Yu disrupted her vacation to deliver a speech in a friend’s bathroom, where they had to set up proper lighting and a backdrop.
Besides her portrait, SU has honored Yu with an endowed scholarship in her name and “acknowledges all that she represents to people who never dreamed that someone like them could become a state supreme court justice.”
Clark said the scholarship recognizes Justice Yu’s devotion to encouraging the next generation of advocates for justice.
“Justice Yu’s commitment to building a better and more diverse system of justice in our state is unwavering,” Clark said.
The $100,000 endowed scholarship in Yu’s name is a result of the generosity of SU supporters.
“I am humbled and honored to receive the Justice Mary Yu Scholarship,” said Erin Lewis, of Asian descent, the first recipient of Justice Yu’s scholarship. “Justice Yu’s service to the community fills me with optimism and motivates me to continue working towards creating a more just future.
As a non-traditional, queer, first-generation advanced degree seeker of color, Justice Yu stands as a promise of what can be for those who live authentically.”
“Women of color can only enrich our community and our thinking,” said Yu. “Because racism and sexism still exists, each one of us must do all that we can to support women of color as they make the choice to enter law school and to enter our profession. And support for these women starts in law school with mentoring. I can’t say it enough—mentoring means nurturing and walking with another in their journey to greatness.”
Chief Justice Steven Gonzalez is the brainchild behind Yu’s portrait.
Gonzalez and Yu are long-time friends. Their friendship began when they were colleagues serving at the King County Superior Court.
Gonzalez credited his young son for inspiring him to showcase justices of color. When Gonzalez was sworn-in in 2011 as justice, he brought his family to visit the Temple of Justice, the official office for the nine Justices.
After seeing all the portraits of white male justices, his son asked, “How come none of them look like us?” González told KNKX in a radio interview, “For me, I thought, well, that’s an important question. They don’t, but it’s changing.”
That insight ignited Gonzalez to change things. Eight years ago, he connected the late Justice Charles Z. Smith to work with esteemed artist Alfredo Arreguin for Smith’s portrait. It has begun a new tradition at the Temple’s gallery by adding recent justices’ portraits on the walls.
Yu’s portrait is also the work of Arreguin who lives in Seattle, now 86. He has won many local, national, and international awards including Mexico, France, and Spain. Funding for Yu’s portrait was provided by the minority bar associations, such as Asian Bar Association, Q-Law, Latina/Latino Bar Association, and Loren Miller Bar.
Yu’s portrait will be hanging inside the Temple when a remodel is completed in three years. The court has also commissioned a portrait of Gonzalez. Every time a justice retires, their photograph is added to the wall outside the clerk’s office next to the courtroom. But the public may not be able to see all the portraits as some parts of the Temple are closed to the public.
Asked what Gonzalez’s son felt about his father’s work, “He says that I kept my promise that things will change for the better,” said Gonzalez. “I think with the new portraits, the Supreme Court is and feels like a more inclusive place where all children can dream of the future.”
Assunta can be reached at email@example.com.