Congratulations to Kristy Yang from the members of the Hmong American Bar Association!
Nation’s second Hmong-American judge is elected in Milwaukee County
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Bruce Vielmetti , Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Published 9:06 p.m. CT April 4, 2017 | Updated 11:01 a.m. CT April 5, 2017
An Oak Creek lawyer who came to America as a child refugee was elected to the Milwaukee County Circuit Court on Tuesday, becoming only the second Hmong-American jurist in the nation.
Kashoua “Kristy” Yang, of Oak Creek, defeated Scott Wales of Fox Point in the race for an open seat in Branch 47, whose incumbent John Siefert announced last year he would not seek re-election.
Both lawyers were first-time candidates for circuit judge.
Yang, her parents and most of her 10 siblings were gathered at Bounce Milwaukee on the south side to watch returns, and celebrate her win.
“I don’t know that I was confident,” she said, “but I knew what I had to do — reach out to voters — and I felt good about what I was doing.”
The only other Hmong-American judge in the country, Paul Lo, has been on the Merced County Superior Court in California since 2014. He appeared at a fund-raiser for Yang.
Wales, 55, stressed his nearly 30 years of legal experience while Yang, 36, told voters about the hard work and values that helped her rise from a child refugee to running her own law practice.
Yang brought little to no traditional trial court experience to the race, as she’s practiced in family law mediation and Social Security disability and workers’ compensation since graduating from the University of Wisconsin Law School in 2009.
Wales’ campaign stressed trial work as a criminal defense attorney, plus his eight years as the part-time municipal judge in Fox Point and his 25 years as a paralegal studies instructor at Milwaukee Area Technical College as a huge edge in practical experience.
But Yang brought an inspiring backstory to the race: She came to the United States as a 6-year-old refugee from Laos with her parents. She grew up in Sheboygan with 10 siblings, married young, divorced and worked her way through college as a single mother.
Yang earned a computer science degree with honors from Lakeland College, then worked six years in customer service and supply chain logistics at Kohler, a job that required travel around the United States and abroad before going to law school.
After about 10 years apart, she remarried her ex-husband and moved to the Milwaukee area.
Yang ran a TV spot that featured how she came here at age six with her family from Laos via a refugee camp in Thailand, and the only English she knew was, “Pepsi, please.” She said she got “overwhelmingly positive” feedback from voters about the spot.
Wales’ campaign forced him to publicly talk about a childhood birth defect, Moebius syndrome, that left his face and tongue partially paralyzed, something that led to childhood bullying until extensive work with a therapist helped him speak normally. He said constant questions about why he wasn’t smiling in his campaign photo prompted him to explain his condition, and turn it into a challenge he overcame.
Wales grew up on the North Shore and has practiced law more than 25 years in Wisconsin, mostly in criminal defense, and as the part-time municipal judge in Fox Point, where he lives. Numerous judges, prosecutors and other lawyers endorsed his candidacy.
The 47 circuit judges in Milwaukee County rotate among divisions that hear misdemeanor and felony crimes, family law cases, probate, small claims, general civil and children’s court matters. Judges serve six-year terms and earn about $132,000 annually.