‘There’s no one like me on the bench’: Alaska’s first Asian American woman to be sitting judge talks getting out of comfort zone
Alaskans have voted twice to retain Anchorage District Court Judge Jo-Ann Chung, who was appointed in 2011
ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - The Alaska Court System includes five state Supreme Court justices along with dozens of judges who serve in communities across the state. The large majority of those judges are based in Anchorage, and several of them are women who are now making up benches that are more reflective of the communities they serve.
One of those women is Judge Jo-Ann Chung, who is the first female Asian American judge in Alaska, according to the Department of Law.
“I think it’s important for us on the bench to reflect the community that we live in,” Chung said. “Alaska does a really good job on striving to be a bench that dispenses equal justice, and strives to be fair to all. Whether you have money, or don’t have money, no matter your color or ethnicity, or whether you’re an immigrant, illegal or otherwise, you would get to be heard here. And I feel like I do contribute to that goal.”
Chung, a district court judge in Anchorage, first expressed an interest in law when she was in grade school: a project of hers featured a collage depicting a lawyer arguing to a jury.
“I remember career day — you have to pick a career — when I was in elementary school,” she said. “I’m not even sure I knew what a lawyer was, but I remember doing a collage, and cutting out what I thought a lawyer would look like, which was a male, white male, and I had a collage with a jury, and that lawyer was arguing to the jury.
“It was a youngish project, but I think I knew ... you’re an advocate,” she continued. “You’re going to argue a cause. That was very appealing.”
Being a judge, however, wasn’t on her radar when she first started her career.
“I never thought I’d be a judge,” she said. “It’s that whole center-of-attention thing. I just thought I was going to plug away at being a lawyer.”
Chung said that despite family members mostly being interested in careers such as engineering, her parents always supported her dreams.
However, growing up in a household in which both English and Toisanese — a language somewhat similar to Cantonese, a dialect of Mandarin — were spoken, there was an additional challenge in communicating even with her teachers.
“I remember, when I was in elementary school, having a teacher ask, did I speak English at home. And I was offended,” she said, reflecting on some of her younger years.
“I was like, ‘I speak English. I’m speaking English now,’” she laughed. “But English as a second language for parents is then sort of being passed on to the children, even though the children were learning. So you probably have to do more to overcome that.”
She was a self-proclaimed shy kid, too, and spoke mainly only to close friends all the way through high school. That meant a career requiring public speaking was going to demand extra work on her part.
“I think I had a confidence problem, not necessarily a self-esteem problem, but a confidence issue,” Chung said, “And it just took doing it every day. Do it every day, get over it, get over the nerves. I grew into the role.
“I didn’t like public speaking, and I wasn’t very good at it. So I became a public defender, which meant that I had to do it every day, and it eventually — it probably took years — but eventually, I was better at it, because I couldn’t get worse,” she laughed.
Chung said a key step for her has been getting out of her comfort zone in general. She believes that’s helped her become a better lawyer, advocate and judge over the years, which Alaskans have apparently seen in her as well.
Appointed in 2011, Alaskans have voted to retain Chung twice already.
“I think you have to know or try to know what your weakness is, and then you do things that maybe are out of your comfort zone,” she explained. “I think if you can do that, you can experiment with things that you might not think that you can do, and then realize that, maybe you can.”
Chung said work days are filled with cases, both civil and criminal, in what she referred to as “the people’s court.”
“That’s exactly what district court is: it’s the people’s court. So, ‘Judge Judy?’ We’re Judge Judy,” she said. “We’re all Judge Judy, the 10 of us on the Anchorage District Court.
“It’s busy,” she added. “It’s every day, every hour, and then we sort of go in waves, so at times you can be less busy, but at times it can be very busy.”
Busy, but rewarding, said Chung, who deals with people from all walks of life in presiding over her courtroom. Her cases — of which can see 30 to 40 in a single day — range from small claims to murder arraignments. Most of her criminal court work deals with misdemeanors; the majority of the civil cases she sees tend to be over online sales, evictions or a disagreement between neighbors.
“Every day is mostly different,” she said. “Jail court is the hardest because people are in jail, and so there’s just more pressure and a little bit more stress. It’s just so varied.”
Growing up in Boston, with parents of Chinese descent, Chung eventually landed at Northeastern School of Law, an institution she said puts an emphasis on real-world experience. Students start their law careers early, alternating each quarter between trying different fields of law and attending classes, including over the summer.
By the time she graduated in 1994, she had already worked in New Mexico, California, Hong Kong and finally, Alaska, where she was offered a clerking position for the Court of Appeals before she graduated.
Soon after, Chung would be working in the State of Alaska Department of Administration’s Public Defender Agency. She worked as an assistant public defender in Kenai for a bit; as the Assistant Attorney General in Anchorage, staying there for five years; and in the Municipal Prosecutor’s office, supervising its domestic violence unit, and eventually becoming the Deputy Municipal Attorney after that.
“I was a public defender and also a prosecutor, so being able to see both sides really helped me,” Chung said. “But, you know, there’s no one like me on the bench. So when you’re looking for maybe a mentor or something like that, it’s harder.”
Reflecting on her time thus far in the state, Chung said Alaska is a place where she’s become entrenched not only in the courtroom but in other communities, such as the biking and skiing scenes.
She said in addition to getting out of a comfort zone, mentorship is imperative. Finding someone for that can be difficult, especially when entering an industry in which someone may be the minority, but the work can pay dividends if done right.
“Trying to find some sort of mentor that can guide you through the process, so they can help you move out of your comfort zone,” she said. “And not to be, like, a different person — you’re not going to change your personality — but you’re going to move out of your comfort zone, try different things, new things, and try to figure out who you are. That’s the advice I would give.”
You can learn more about Anchorage Youth Court, an after-school and summer-school program dedicated to educating students about the justice system and related careers, by heading to the AYC website. Many Alaskans also choose to represent themselves in court; use this link to learn more about self-representation in court hearings. Additionally, the Alaska Court System has posted various openings, including entry level opportunities. More information about those can be found here.
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