Washington Supreme Court Justice Mary Yu

Washington Supreme Court Justice Mary Yu

On this midweek show, Crystal has a delightful conversation with Washington Supreme Court Justice Mary Yu about her path to becoming the first Asian American, first Latina, first woman of color, and first LGBTQ+ justice on the court. They discuss the importance of state supreme courts in light of recent decisions that threaten people’s rights on the national level, how that translates to why we should scrutinize judicial elections, and common misconceptions people have about the state Supreme Court. Justice Yu then shares about efforts to make courts more accessible and equitable to everyone, what she’s most proud of in her career, and how people can be involved in restoring confidence in the justice system.


This episode was recorded before the end of filing week in May. The candidate filing deadline passed without any challenger filing to run against Justice Yu, so she will appear unopposed on the November ballot and serve another term on our state’s highest court.

This episode was also recorded before the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision, hence the reference to the leaked draft about overturning Roe vs Wade.

About the Guest

Find Justice Yu on Twitter/X at @JudgeMaryYu.


Washington Supreme Court Bio - Justice Mary I. Yu: https://www.courts.wa.gov/appellate_trial_courts/supreme/bios/?fa=scbios.display_file&fileID=Yu

Campaign Website - Justice Mary Yu: https://justicemaryyu.com/

“Who's Marrying the First Gay Couple? Judge Mary Yu” by Dominic Holden from The Stranger:https://www.thestranger.com/blogs/2012/12/08/15483647/whos-marrying-the-first-gay-couple-judge-mary-yu

Justice Mary Yu On Jimmy Kimmel Show: https://vimeo.com/673039715

State of Washington Commission on Judicial Conduct: https://www.cjc.state.wa.us/

Washington State Court Rules: Code of Judicial Conduct: https://www.courts.wa.gov/court_rules/?fa=court_rules.list&group=ga&set=CJC

Civil Right to Counsel or “Civil Gideon”: https://www.americanbar.org/groups/legal_aid_indigent_defense/civil_right_to_counsel1/

June 4th Letter - Washington Supreme Court:/content/files/content/publicUpload/Supreme%20Court%20News/judiciary-20legal-20community-20signed-20060420.pdf

Washington Leadership Institute: https://www.law.uw.edu/academics/continuing-education/wli


[00:00:00] Crystal Fincher: Welcome to Hacks & Wonks. I'm Crystal Fincher, and I'm a political consultant and your host. On this show, we talk with policy wonks and political hacks to gather insight into local politics and policy in Washington State through the lens of those doing the work with behind-the-scenes perspectives on what's happening, why it's happening, and what you can do about it. Full transcripts and resources referenced in the show are always available at officialhacksandwonks.com and in our episode notes. Today, I'm once again just so excited to welcome to the program another very distinguished State Supreme Court Justice - Justice Mary Yu is with us today. Thank you so much for joining us.

[00:00:51] Justice Mary Yu: Oh, Crystal, thank you for the invitation. I really appreciate your interest and I'm looking forward to having a fun conversation.

[00:01:00] Crystal Fincher: Absolutely. And so I just wanted to start off talking and ask you - what was your path to the Supreme Court?

[00:01:08] Justice Mary Yu: Well, I came from the trial court - so I was a trial court judge in King County Superior Court for 14 years - that felt like a lifetime in many ways. And prior to that, I was a prosecutor in the King County Prosecutor's Office. And then before that, I was just frankly very proud to be working, doing some organizing work in social justice in Chicago. So a little crooked path, but nevertheless, it's what brought me to the court here.

[00:01:38] Crystal Fincher: Well, and I have found that those crooked paths are sometimes the most useful and oftentimes give you such helpful perspectives because you're not just coming from one point of view, you've seen things from different perspectives, have walked in different shoes, and have been able to see that. And you're actually the first Asian American, first Latina, first woman of color, and first LGBTQ+ justice on our State Supreme Court. What has that meant to you and how do you think that impacts the work that you do?

[00:02:08] Justice Mary Yu: Gosh, Crystal - being the first sometimes can be a real burden in the sense that I know that I worry about not messing it up for others. I'm worried that, really, my path will create more opportunities for others. And so I'm aware of the fact that when people see me, they see all of what you just described. And I think at one level for our community, there's a lot of expectations that others will be able to follow, that this has opened up the door for all of us. On the other hand, I know that with that comes a lot of assumptions about it - our community - some will be positive, some will be negative. I think some people in their own mind wonder or not - I have a packed agenda or am predisposed to do something or decide a case in a particular way because I'm first. And I don't think that that's true, other than I do bring a level of sensitivity to what it's like to not have resources, what it's like to be other, what it's like to be an outsider. And frankly, I see that that's an asset at our table because there are nine of us and it means nine different viewpoints. And frankly, I think the viewpoint that I bring of the other, the outsider, a person of color, a person with little economic resources growing up - they ought be at the table too, not to control, but to contribute.

[00:03:33] Crystal Fincher: Absolutely, that's such a great point. A lot of people are just now figuring out how important our courts are, our supreme courts are - not just at a national level, but especially if we lose rights at the national level, our states are really our firewall and the only thing standing between a lot of people and their rights. So right now, when we are basically looking at the overturning of Roe vs Wade - there was the leaked draft that looks like it's going to become official at some time soon. How do you view the state of not only abortion rights, but the ability to be covered by contraception and just access to healthcare for everyone. Where do we stand here in the state? And where do you stand, as a justice, in how you approach these issues?

[00:04:33] Justice Mary Yu: Yeah, well, Crystal, I think you're right in the sense that a lot of these issues are going to be decided eventually by state supreme courts. And so state constitutions are pretty important and state supreme courts are important around the country. Each one of us is different, if you will, because our constitutions are different. So there really is no exact pattern of what this all means. In the State of Washington, I think we've already had the executive and the legislative branches indicate that they intend to protect the right to abortion, that they intend to protect healthcare rights for all people. And our branch - we don't declare policies, right? We will wait for a case to come to us. So at one level, it's inappropriate for me to comment on what are we gonna do when that happens. And yet at the same time, I can say is - our court is very protective of our own State Constitution. In our own state, we have had a long history of protecting privacy and individual rights. It's a long track record that our court's not gonna step in and undo. So I think Washingtonians can feel very comfortable that our court's going to follow precedent, our court's going to continue to protect the rights of Washingtonians as we have done for the last couple of hundred years, in some ways - even the territorial courts.

So, it's right to be concerned. I can see the concern that people would have of what does this all mean when you look at the United States Supreme Court? But my understanding when I have reviewed the opinion - it really is seeming to indicate that these issues should be decided at the state level. And of course, I think they would be decided by the legislative branch.

[00:06:19] Crystal Fincher: Yeah, absolutely. I think one thing that surprises people still sometimes - for as much as people who are involved in politics and who do this know all of the rules and policies and everything surrounding elections - I think a lot of people, talk to a lot of people who see our federal Supreme Court being appointed, and then being very surprised that we elect our Supreme Court justices in this state. How do you think that impacts just how we should be looking at the Supreme Court, how we should be looking at these elections, and what is at stake with our State Supreme Court elections.

[00:07:01] Justice Mary Yu: First of all, I do think that everybody ought to scrutinize all judges in all judicial elections. I think it's really important that Washington State has retained the right to vote for their judges. Now, what's interesting is we have a hybrid because when there's a vacancy, someone is appointed to fill the vacancy before they're subject to election. For example, I was appointed initially by Governor Locke to the Superior Court. At the Supreme Court, I was appointed by Governor Inslee and then stood for election. So in many ways we have part of the same process in terms of an appointment, but the check on it, if you will, is elections. And elections are an opportunity for the electorate to really evaluate someone and decide whether or not they want to retain that individual as a justice in our state.

Unfortunately, people drop right off in the sense that they don't vote all the way down ballot. We are always at the bottom of the ballot and most people would say - I don't know anything about judges. There is an interest this year - because of all these issues that you mentioned, people are suddenly looking and saying who's on our court and what does it mean? And what's their track record and who are they? I think that's a good thing. I think it's really important for people to educate themselves, take another class on civics, and understand who's on our court - how many, who are they, what have they written, what have they said? Because they will - ultimately may be the decision makers on these important matters. It's not only in terms of healthcare, perhaps abortion, but it really includes questions related to race, incarceration, the death penalty - all the things that are important to people and touch them in every single way. So, I hope that people will pay attention, that they will bother to actually invite us to come and speak, invite us to come into classrooms, into forums. All of us are always willing to answer questions about what we do.

[00:08:59] Crystal Fincher: And I do have to say - in our interactions with you, you have been exceedingly willing to talk and to share and just wanting to help people understand how the process works, how they can access and be a part of the process. And I really do appreciate just talking about how critical it is to engage in judicial elections at all levels. And even when it comes to just same-sex marriage and rights that people have to love the person who they love without penalty or consequence - was looking back, it was super fun - back in 2012, after the long and hard fought battle for marriage equality was won, you were actually on Jimmy Kimmel doing [Perfectly Named People] and you officiated the first same sex marriages in Washington State. What does it feel like - just the euphoria of that time and winning rights that so many had fought for so long to secure, to landing back where we are right now, where that looks to be in jeopardy once again?

[00:10:15] Justice Mary Yu: Yeah, it's really interesting because when we talk about crooked paths, it was a crooked path to get to the place where same-sex marriage would be legal in the State of Washington. Unfortunately our court went - it had the opportunity to decide the matter, decided it incorrectly - and then it went to the people and it was really the vote of the people. It was a popular vote that really granted us the right to marry the person that we love. Again, another check on all of our systems. For me, I have to admit that my bailiff, who was a young Japanese man whose parents had to go to someplace else to get married because they lived in DC and could not marry because they were an interracial couple, said to me - Judge, we shouldn't wait one more moment for people to marry who they wanna marry, so let's start to do weddings at midnight, as soon as the law takes effect. And it was, as you described, it was a joyous moment. It was something to celebrate because finally we had equal rights, right? The right to marry who you love.

I would say, Crystal, I don't think that's in jeopardy in the State of Washington, given that it is the law and there hasn't been a challenge to that law. And regardless of what may happen at the federal level, that's not going to really jeopardize the law in the State of Washington as it exists now. Now, if there's a challenge to it because of some federal action, that's a whole different matter - then it would make its way through the legal system, and perhaps somebody might challenge the law that was enacted by the citizens somehow, but that's not the pattern everywhere in the country. And despite the fact that we have a little comfort in the State of Washington, I think we should be concerned because we care about other people, and we care about other people in other states where they don't have a state protection and they did rely on federal law to grant them the right to marry someone. So what we're developing, which should be a concern to everyone, is just this big checkerboard in the country of rights being different, depending on where you live. That's a serious concern, especially for people who are transient - for example, those who are in the military - should their families have certain rights in one state and yet when they move, not have those same rights in another state. And we know that those military personnel will be moving around to different states, so it's a real concern.

[00:12:46] Crystal Fincher: It is an absolute concern. One other concern that I've heard a number of people raise is just looking at the quality and the qualification of judges - there being a number of concerns at some of the judges that have been appointed, particularly in the last administration, who aside from questions of partisanship, just on questions of - do you understand the law as it is, in order to protect it. And people may have different perspectives on how to protect the law, how to decide if a case is consistent with it, but truly understanding and being just qualified enough to sit there and make those judgements is a different issue than partisanship. You happen to be rated "Exceptionally Well Qualified" by several bar associations, you're endorsed by all of the other State Supreme Court justices, and just so many people. I could spend, literally five minutes, just talking about all of the awards and accolades that you've been given.

But when it comes to some of our local judicial elections that don't receive a lot of scrutiny, where a lot of times newspapers that used to cover those and that used to look into the backgrounds of judges - they've lost a lot of resources - and so there is a fear that there could be people who land in our courts here in this state that just aren't qualified, that are coming with an incorrect perspective of what the law is, who the law protects, and how it should operate. And that especially given this national climate and with some of the just extremism that we have been enduring, that that poses a real danger for local communities, potentially even when we do have a State Supreme Court that is doing its job correctly. How do you view that risk?

[00:14:58] Justice Mary Yu: It's a real risk to begin with - what you described isn't something that's sort of a sci-fi movie. It's a real risk, but that's why people like you play an important role, as well as other media outlets. You do invite people to come and speak and talk with you. You have the opportunity to ask some questions and to help educate the electorate. As long as Washington remains a populous state where elections are important, you will always face the risk that there could be somebody who's not qualified or not competent to serve. It's the risk we take, it's the price we pay for the right to vote, the right to selection, the right to have a voice, and not to give up citizen power. But I would hope that the bar associations and other people would continue to try to make themselves available to rate judges, to ask questions, and to try to educate the broader community about who these people are.

[00:15:54] Crystal Fincher: What do you think are the most common misconceptions that people have about the court?

[00:15:58] Justice Mary Yu: Sometimes I wonder whether there are misconceptions or frankly realities, because I think a lot of people think that our courts are bureaucratic, insensitive, do not treat people of color fairly. And as much as I wanna be defensive about ourselves, I think some of that is very real - is we have to do a better job of becoming more accessible, of becoming a little less bureaucratic and simpler in our procedures. And we're trying to get there. I think some of the other unfortunate misconceptions are - is that we are groupthink or that we decide decisions together just to get along. And yet, if anybody studied our opinions, they would see that is hardly - hardly - the reality is it's hard fought, we sometimes will split 5-4 on some cases. We do our job best when we are in disagreement. So we're not a groupthink entity - none of our courts really, I would hope, are just stamping just to go along and create an assembly line.

Every so often you might have a judicial officer that brings shame on the rest of us - somebody who has done something imprudent. I know there are a couple in terms of some sexual assault allegations and that's harmful because it hurts the whole judiciary when something like that occurs. But I think overall, we have a really functional system in the State of Washington and it may be because we're very transparent and open, and people can walk into our courtrooms anytime and watch the proceedings.

[00:17:31] Crystal Fincher: You do bring up an interesting issue where there are a couple of judges that are the subjects of investigations or controversies, currently. There was just a recent situation where a judge had used the N-word and had some other behavior that their colleagues thought was inappropriate. Do you think our system of discipline and accountability for judges at all levels is sufficient?

[00:17:59] Justice Mary Yu: I do. I do think it is. The Judicial Conduct Commission has the ability to investigate if there is a complaint. And I can say from personal experience, they are robust in scrutinizing judges and trying to really enhance confidence in terms of what we do. I think it's pretty robust and it's a very open process - anybody can file a complaint - that person's identity is protected, so there's no risk to them because judges can - right - they can punish, they can be coercive, they can manipulate. I think it's really important to protect people who would file a complaint, and we have that process. I think probably publicizing the rules might be a good thing in the sense of more people should know that in the State of Washington, we have a code of judicial conduct. We do have a code that governs how we should do what we do. We have a code that really guides us in terms of when we should recuse or not. We have a really strong board of ethics that will provide an opinion if a judge needs specific advice on a particular circumstance and probably the public does not know that. And I would say we might do a better job of letting people know.

[00:19:16] Crystal Fincher: That is certainly very helpful. I do think a lot of people don't know. I'm also wondering what more can be done to help people, even if they don't come with a lot of resources, to participate in our judicial system and to be protected by it at all levels in our state. There are so many situations where - not so much at the Supreme Court, even though people are still trying to figure some stuff out there - but where a defendant may be up for eviction and they're in a tough situation, and coming in and they don't know all the rules, their landlord knows all the rules, seems to be very chummy with everyone else in there, 'cause they own a lot of properties and it seems like the system is working for them. They're all familiar with it, they're doing the same song and dance that they do all the time to the detriment of someone who still has rights and protections under the law. What more can be done to help people, especially those who are not familiar with the system or who don't have the money to hire people who are, to be able to receive all of their protections that they're entitled to.

[00:20:30] Justice Mary Yu: We've been working really hard to try to increase civil legal aid. And that is to try to ensure that people have representation on the civil side as well. We've received a lot of money from the Legislature this past year to really offer representation to individuals who are being evicted. That's just one particular circumstance, but I have to admit that I'm very sensitive to the fact that there are a lot of hearings where people not only are at a loss in terms of housing, but their jobs, benefits, the inability to access healthcare at times. There are a host of issues where people need representation, so I have to admit that I'm a fan of civil representation 100%. I would love to have a case come to us that gives us the opportunity to do the same thing we did on a criminal side. And that is "Civil Gideon" - is to say that everyone deserves the right to be represented by an attorney, regardless of your income. I know it would be expensive, and yet the rights that are at risk in the civil arena are great, right? It is to be homeless, to be without a job, to be without benefits - are very real things for individuals. So we're trying, I think - our court and along with others are big advocates of trying to ensure that there is civil legal aid available to individuals.

[00:21:54] Crystal Fincher: That would be tremendously helpful, and certainly would cost more. I do hope that we get better as a society. And as we - we're having legislative elections and conversations right now, but that we also examine the cost of going without it and what it means to potentially push someone into homelessness, or out of a job, or into financial crisis because they don't have healthcare or the services that they need - it is so costly. And often in ways that can't be compensated or reimbursed. So I just - I completely agree with you and thank you so much for bringing that up. What are other challenges you think the Court is suited to address within the justice system?

[00:22:48] Justice Mary Yu: Well, I would say two areas I know that I have spent a lot of energy on that I think are very important is - one, has to do with funding of our courts. As you may know, our courts charge for everything, and you have to pay a filing fee, we also use monetary sanctions. And why do we do that? Because we have to fund ourselves. So I'm a big advocate that some day - there has to be some heavy lifting - and our courts really should be part of the general fund, so that we are not the cash registers. So we don't have to collect the funds in order to pay for the services that we're providing. We're a branch of government that ought to be, again, accessible and available to everyone. I know of no other branch where you have to pay before you get served, and yet that's what happens in our court systems. I know the judges, who are in our municipal courts or in our district courts, feel awful about having to constantly collect money in order to sustain therapeutic courts or any other kind of court that serves people. So that's one that I think is really important and we're working very hard on.

The second is we're really wrestling with how do we eradicate racism from our system? It's systemic, it's institutional, and it's taking a lot of work to invite everyone to say - how do we do this better? How do we examine ourselves and our practices and how do we change? So we look at jury diversity, we've looked at legal financial obligations. We are trying very hard at every level to say - this is our responsibility, it is our duty to ensure that every single person can be guaranteed truly not only access, but a fair process. So we're doing a lot of education at this point. And as you may know, in 2020, our court issued a letter to the entire legal community inviting everyone to join us in examining our systems and to eradicating racism at every level. So we're doing that heavy work - those are the two things that I have as a priority, and that I think are important.

[00:24:54] Crystal Fincher: And I appreciate that in our recent conversation with Justice Whitener, we talked about that letter and just how important it was in the role that our court took in leading the country, really and acknowledging that and stating plainly this is a problem that we are responsible to solve. It is widely acknowledged - I certainly believe we can't start to solve problems until we acknowledge them, and so having that acknowledgement and having people who are, who seem to be doing the work to fix it is something that I appreciate and I'm thankful for.

You - again. I could go on about all of the accolades that you've received for quite some time. You received the 2019 Crosscut Courage in Elected Office award. You recently, just late last year, had your portrait unveiled at Seattle University. You have - my goodness, there's so much - you received the 2020 Latino Bar Association Trailblazer Award, the "Established Leader" Pride Award from Mayor Jenny Durkan in the City of Seattle, the 2018 "Voice of Social Justice" from the Greater Seattle Business Association, the 2017 "Lifetime Achievement" - and I'm telling you, I - this is literally about a sixth of the things that I could list from you. As you look at your career, what are you most proud of?

[00:26:34] Justice Mary Yu: It's a hard question. It's hard because when I think about my life and not just a career, I think I am most proud that I think I fulfilled my parents' dream. And that's because both of my parents came to this country very, very poor with nothing. My mother was a farm worker. My father grew up on a ship that just floated around the world for years - he was a boy without a parent. And their dream when they came together, I think, was simply to provide an opportunity for their children to have food on the table, to have a decent job, and to maybe have an education. So when I look back and I look at my life, I think I'm most proud that I fulfilled their dream of in one generation, having the opportunity to be successful.

When I look at my career, I would say the thing that I'm most proud of is having been a mentor to so many young people of color who have grown up and who are now judges. I am proud to be the co-chair of the Leadership Institute with Mr. James Williams, where we have graduated 196 lawyers from our leadership program and our focus is on underrepresented lawyers. And what we do is just really enable and empower them to see their gifts and talents. And we have a lot of them who have become judges. And we have one who is the US Attorney for Western Washington - Nick Brown was one of our graduates. So I would say I'm most proud of those acts because it's about giving back and it's about enabling others to do this work, so I would be very happy to rest on those laurels, is to say - you paid it back, Mary, and that's what it's all about.

[00:28:33] Crystal Fincher: Absolutely, and they would be so proud and that you are also helping to enable that for so many other people in this state - I certainly appreciate. And I guess as we are looking forward and your continuing service on the court, assuming you're going to be re-elected, assuming all of us get out there and vote to make sure that happens. What do you most want to accomplish moving forward?

[00:29:06] Justice Mary Yu: I wanna continue to do what I am doing, 'cause I think that's really important. And I'd like to put some more energy into restoring confidence in our courts. I'm trying to respond to Eric Liu's call to be concerned about the health of our democracy. His call has really resonated with me that we can't live with just accepting polarization - this is not the future of our country and the future of who we are. And that all of us, as judges and lawyers, we should be very, very concerned about keeping our democracy alive, keeping it healthy, and frankly being engaged.

[00:29:47] Crystal Fincher: And if you give people some advice on how they can help ensure that within our judicial system, what would you say?

[00:29:57] Justice Mary Yu: Crystal, can you pose that question again? I'm sorry.

[00:29:59] Crystal Fincher: Oh, sure - no problem. If you were to give folks, one piece of advice for how they could engage with our judicial system, or something that they could do to help it be more equitable and healthier and to restore that trust - what advice would you get for people for what they could do to help that?

[00:30:19] Justice Mary Yu: I'd say come to jury service - come to jury service and be a part of the decision making. Restore confidence in what we do - when I was a trial judge, I remember talking to the whole pool of jurors, 70 people who were just dying to get outta there. And I would just say before you raise your hand and ask to leave, I just want you to imagine and think about this - that if it were you, would you not want somebody like yourself to be sitting there to be the decision maker? Because all the people who come into our court system, they're there because there's something really important to them. The things that they hold most near and dear - and it could be innocence in a criminal trial, injury that they haven't been compensated for, some unfair contract, whatever it might be - it's something important to those individuals. And who would you want to be seated, sitting there, listening to this. Would you not want somebody like yourself? And I'd just say - just pause and think about that. And I'd have to say hands went down and people became a little embarrassed and thought - well, yeah, I guess I could do this. I can't do it for 10 weeks, I could do it for two days or three days.

So I would say to everyone is - please, if you have the opportunity to serve as a juror, do so. You become the fact finder, which is the most important part of a trial - is somebody who determines what is true and what is not, or what you wanna believe or what you don't wanna believe. It doesn't even matter if it's truthful or not. What do you believe and how do you determine credibility should rest in the hands of other people? So I would say that's something everyone can do - is please come to jury service when you can. And if you get that summons, that's the beginning. From there, you'll be able to see the rest of the flaws and then maybe you can help us figure out the rest.

[00:32:17] Crystal Fincher: Great advice. Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us today - sincerely appreciate this conversation and all of the work you've done and continue to do. Thank you so much, Justice Yu.

[00:32:29] Justice Mary Yu: Crystal, thank you so much.

[00:32:31] Crystal Fincher: I thank you all for listening to Hacks & Wonks on KVRU 105.7 FM. The producer of Hacks & Wonks is Lisl Stadler with assistance from Shannon Cheng. You can find me on Twitter @finchfrii, spelled F-I-N-C-H-F-R-I-I. Now you can follow Hacks & Wonks on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever else you get your podcasts - just type "Hacks and Wonks" into the search bar. Be sure to subscribe to get our Friday almost-live shows and our midweek show delivered to your podcast feed. If you like us, leave a review wherever you listen to Hacks & Wonks. You can also get a full transcript of this episode and links to the resources referenced in the show at officialhacksandwonks.com and in the episode notes.

Thanks for tuning in - we'll talk to you next time.