As a 13-year-old immigrant in St. Paul in the late 1980s, Pao Paul Yang was responsible for filling out his parents’ health care benefits and other paperwork.
Soon, the former Thai refugee camp resident was doing the same for aunts, uncles and extended family members. So was born his interest in helping others that led to a law career and as of January, a new job as a Ramsey County district judge.
“I want people to feel when they’re in court, ‘I have a fair shake. This is my court,’ ” said Yang, who will go by P. Paul Yang. “We don’t have a perfect system in place, but it’s the best system we have.”
Yang was sworn in earlier this month and was recognized at an investiture ceremony on Thursday. He and Ramsey County District Judge Adam Yang were elected in November, becoming the state’s second and third Hmong-American judges. The two are not related.
The state’s first Hmong-American judge, Ramsey County District Judge Sophia Vuelo, was appointed in late 2017 and sworn in last year.
“This milestone is tangible proof that our communities and legal systems value diversity and inclusion,” the Hmong American Bar Association (HABA) said in a written statement. “It also demonstrates the capabilities and credentials of our Hmong-American attorneys.”
According to the HABA, a Hmong-American judge, Thai Vang, was also elected in South Carolina last year. He and the two newly elected Ramsey County judges join three other Hmong-American judges across the country.
“It’s so exciting,” Vuelo said at Yang’s ceremony. “I’ve always said I may be the first [in Minnesota], but I won’t be the last.”
Yang said his experience growing up on St. Paul’s East Side and in the Frogtown neighborhood will inform his role on the bench. The 42-year-old, who practiced criminal law privately and worked as a part-time public defender in Dakota County, now lives in the city’s North End.
“I want to serve the community I grew up in,” Yang said. “If you’ve never lived in it, it’s just hard to see what people go through.”
Adam Yang was also sworn in earlier this month and will be recognized at a 4 p.m. ceremony Thursday at the Landmark Center.
Adam Yang, 47, immigrated to St. Paul in 1980 at the age of 9 and grew up in the McDonough Homes public housing complex. He was on track to become a patent attorney after earning an engineering degree, but a stint working with low-income clients at the Neighborhood Justice Center changed the course of his career.
“I enjoy being able to stand up for people, making sure their voices are heard,” he said.
Adam Yang, who now lives in Roseville, worked as a Hennepin County public defender from 2001 until this month.
“I want people who come through my court … I want them to know and feel that they’re being treated fairly,” he said. “That they are heard and respected.”