INTERVIEW: Judge Mary Yu Helms a History of Firsts

INTERVIEW: Judge Mary Yu Helms a History of Firsts

- in Top News, Politics, Local

JMY10Governor Jay Inslee is expected to announce his selection within the next two weeks for the Washington State Supreme Court seat being vacated by Justice Jim Johnson on April 30. While there are 21 justices being considered, one stands head-and-shoulders above the rest: Judge Mary Yu, a name as unforgettable as her actions throughout the marriage equality movement.

A trial judge on the King County Superior Court for 14 years, Yu consistently cultivates and retains her connection to the community she serves. She is scheduled to receive the 2014 Washington State Association for Justice “Judge of the Year” award on May 2 in Seattle.

“The state Supreme Court is the highest court in our state. There is no more important judicial appointment that the Governor makes than this,” said Judge Anne Levinson (ret.). “The Court rules on a wide range of critically important issues that affect every person, business and government jurisdiction across the state. The cases that come before the State Supreme Court could involve a state voter initiative, whether the State is meeting its paramount duty to fund public education, whether criminal conviction should be upheld or whether a law is discriminatory. For state issues, they are the final decision-makers on whether a law is constitutional. This is the court that in 2006 decided 5-4 against marriage equality.”

So, who is Yu, and what makes her the right selection for the Washington State Supreme Court?

“Judge Yu not only has a stellar record as a trial court judge, but has also devoted her time off the bench to improving access to justice for all communities and mentoring the next generation of attorneys.  When we were poised to have same-sex weddings begin in our state, she was the first judge I called and without hesitation she volunteered to start officiating at midnight that Sunday and went until 7:00 a.m. that morning so that couples would not have to wait a day longer to get married,” added Levinson. “Some of the first couples to get married in the months that followed were couples for whom she had presided over their adoptions in past years.  It meant everything to them that she would officiate.”

JMY3How do you feel right now?

First of all, I’m excited. But, you know, the process is really like a marathon, in the sense that you need to be interviewed by all the bar associations and various committees and all the people who want to weigh in and give the governor some input on one’s competency. So I have to admit – at this point I’m done with all the bar associations, I’m really pleased that I’ve gotten the highest ratings from all of the minority bars, and those are the bars that are important to me.

Professionally, what excites you about the possibility of doing this – filling that seat?

What really excites me and the reason why I’m doing this is I really think having 14 years in the trial court will really make a contribution – a positive contribution to the court in some way. When you really stop and think about it, they make decisions that really affect individual lives. I mean you can look at the Andersen decision that frankly decided that we didn’t have the right to marry.

They also make decisions on parenting issues all the time – and for our community, the way we construct our families, it’s really important to have those protections under the law. So at the end of the day, I think bringing my experience as a trial court judge and bringing my experience in terms of my background and who I am, I hope is going to enrich the discussion.

Regarding families, you’ve presided over many adoptions, same-sex weddings, and such. Is that a fun thing for you to do? Is it something you look forward to within your position?

It is. It’s a fun thing to do in the sense that we’re celebrating families. But it’s a two-edged sword in the sense that we still now have the right to marry, and yet they’re still having to come in and do an extra little step. And it’s not because Washington requires it – it’s because there’s no uniformity across the country, so if they go to Disneyland they want to make sure that their rights are going to be protected as two equal parents when they travel outside the state.

So at one level you feel bad that people have to go through the extra process. On the other hand, it’s a great opportunity to celebrate our families and lives and relationships and to affirm people in the choices that they’ve made. So it’s great. I love it. I love it.

Washington State marriage equality. You were there at 12:01 a.m. and spent seven hours on your own dime to facilitate same-sex marriages the moment it became legal to wed. What was that night like for you?

You know, it’s so funny, because the excitement started to build as we knew when it was going to be actually legal to be able to do this. And then we got the idea and we talked with Anne [Levinson] when she suggested that maybe we wanted to go ahead and start to marry people right away. And I have to admit, I thought, “Why should people have to wait?” And my bailiff at the time just said the same thing, “You know what, let’s do it. Let’s do it at 12:01 a.m. Whoever wants to come, we’ll get rolling. We’ll do it.”

During the day I remember thinking, “Well, I should probably take a nap.” But my bailiff and others, including Anne, kept saying the media’s calling and the media’s calling and all of a sudden we’re thinking, “This is a huge event.”

It was a huge story around the world that day.

We had so many media requests to be present, and it ended up being an international story in the sense that it was the top Google news story, it was in the Philippines, in Ireland, in Italy, Australia. And then I really began to recognize the significance of it that night, when we stood there with, frankly, two women, and I had done the adoption about two or three months ago, so they had the baby. And it just happened to be them – they were two teachers from Mt. Vernon, small little town, they were the ones at 12:01 a.m. And as soon as I pronounced them married, all these cameras started to click and we realized that there were all these people all around us. I mean, it was just remarkable.

We made ourselves available every half hour, so we went then from 12 to 7 in the morning. And I think it was the most remarkable, lovely, wonderful, fun, happy evening I’ve ever had.

[Editor’s Note: The sign-in book is brought out by Yu. She flips through the pages, reads a few sentiments, quietly remembering the night that made history].


And you did that voluntarily. You weren’t paid for it.

Right. It was so joyous. As we said we were going to be [available], everybody else started to get excited about it. So we had a lot of staff volunteer because people wanted to welcome people.

Let’s go back to your upbringing in Chicago.

Sure, sure. I grew up on the south side of Chicago in a little neighborhood called Bridgeport. I grew up there – gee, I went to grammar school, high school, and then I went to college in a little place right outside of Chicago called – at the time it was called Rosary, it’s now Dominican University.

And, I loved it. I worked for the arch-bishop there for 10 years, running the peace and justice office for the church. And that was really just a social policy outreach office for the Catholic Church. And at that time, it was the heyday of social justice and progressive thinking within the Church…things are a little different now.

What year was that?

That would’ve been in 1975…actually 1979 to 89 was the time that I was working in the office, but that whole era is there era of when I was involved.

I came from a family of undocumented people. My father was here from China, my mother from Mexico, and they really were very simple, working people and had very little. When I look at how far we have come as people of color, when I look at how far we have come, frankly, as lesbians – even in terms of being able to say that “L” word, right? There’s an amount of pride now in who we are and in our community that wasn’t there 25 years ago.


I stop and I think and I still have to pinch myself that Referendum 74 [marriage equality in Washington State] passed. I almost couldn’t believe that the Supreme Court made the right decision [in Windsor] and that one by one every state is really coming to the same point again of really recognizing you oughta be able to marry the person that you love.

What do you do for fun when you’re not changing people’s lives?

I’m very boring. I think I’m boring in some ways. I mean, I love to read, I love good food…I’m a runner, I like to run. I like dancing, I suppose. But, I have to admit, work has been almost everything – I do a lot of volunteer work. I serve on the board of Fair Start. I just finished a term – that’s a really important organization for me. I sit on mock trials. I try to stay as involved as I can in terms of being engaged with the local community. And that’s really how I spend my time when I’m off the bench.

How do you de-stress? Do you ever have to shake off the day somehow?

You know, running does it. Having a good meal with good friends. Sitting home, having a nice glass of wine. I mean, that’s a nice way to decompress after a tough day.

Are you pinching yourself?

I’m so lucky to be in this position. There’s no guarantee the governor’s going to make this choice at all. He really has, I think, a pool of really, very good people. But I sure would love – because I know I’m qualified, I would sure love to be the first out lesbian up there on that court. First woman of color. First Asian in this area…

A lot of firsts.



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