Changing the face of justice: Sophia Vuelo Appointed First Hmong-American Judge in Minnesota

On Nov. 30 last year, Gov. Mark Dayton appointed Sophia Vuelo as a district court judge in the second judicial district of Minnesota. Vuelo, a native of Eau Claire, Wis., was officially sworn in Dec. 18, becoming the first Hmong-American judge in Minnesota.

“I’ve really considered myself a judge, first and foremost,” said Vuelo. “And then I happen to be a judge of Hmong descent.”

As a district court judge, Vuelo oversees a wide range of cases, including criminal, family law, family custody, and child protection cases, plus traffic offenses.

“It’s been more fun and exciting than I could ever anticipate, and I’ve enjoyed every day that I’ve been on the bench,” said Vuelo.

Judge Sophia Vuelo
Judge Sophia Vuelo

Vuelo’s legal experience indicates she’s well suited for the job. She was a special assistant Ramsey County attorney, assistant public defender for the second judicial district, assistant Rochester city attorney, and managing attorney for Catholic Charities. She has experience as a former prosecutor and as a criminal defense attorney.

Her civil experience comes from her solo practice at Vuelo Law, where she worked on cases related to juvenile protection, family and criminal matters.

“Having done three substantive areas of law, it gave me tremendous insight and ability to be able to understand the law substantively as well as how we do things here in Ramsey County Court,” said Vuelo.

Vuelo applied three times before receiving district judge appointment, which she says is typical. She believes it was “both the depth and breadth of” her legal experience and her life experience that led her to achieving her goal.

“Ms. Sophia Vuelo has dedicated her career to pursuing justice for all Minnesotans, through her work with Minnesota courts, charities and in her own private practice,”said Dayton said in a press release. “Ms. Vuelo’s commitment to public service has prepared her well for this important new role.”

Judge Sophia Vuelo
Judge Sophia Vuelo

Vuelo recognizes the role of a judge in society as broad and significant.

“It’s important to have judges who understand the community who are going to be thoughtful and patient, willing to listen, because they’re there to solve problems and help people get out of crisis,” said Vuelo.

Dayton’s appointment of Minnesota’s first Hmong judge supported his efforts to increase diversity and inclusion in the state’s workforce, specifically in his judicial appointments. He also appointed the first Native American woman, African-American woman and openly gay justice to the Minnesota Supreme Court.

In a recent ThreeSixty Magazine feature on him, Dayton said, “In district court, people say, when somebody walks into a courtroom, they look around [and say], ‘Is there anybody that looks like me?’ And if you’re a minority and everybody else there is white, right away you’re thinking, ‘I’m not gonna get a fair shake here.’”

In April of 2016, Star Tribune reported that nearly 37 percent of the state’s prison population is black — despite only making up 6 percent of the state’s population.

“If it’s brown families and black families that are coming into the legal system at a greater percentage than your average Minnesotan, our legal system absolutely needs to reflect the lives and experiences of people who are coming before the court,” said Vuelo. “That is how we ensure that we are doing justice.”

Vuelo said that diversity is more than just a good thing. It is a necessity to ensure “we are doing the work that our constitution intended for us to do, which is to treat everyone equal under the law.

“I’ve always said that eradicating sexism and eradicating racism has to be intentional, otherwise it doesn’t just go away on its own,” said Vuelo. “When Governor Mark Dayton appointed me, he literally changed the face of justice. My hope is that our bench will continue to reflect all of the lives who live in our communities. My hope is that our legal system can gain greater confidence and belief from our community.”