Paul Chapao Lo, a refugee from Laos, has become the first Superior Court judge in the 40-year-history of the Hmong in America.
Just before Christmas, Gov. Jerry Brown appointed Lo, a 45-year-old UC Davis graduate, to the Merced County Superior Court, a significant milestone for the roughly 300,000 Hmong refugees in the United States. Tribal people from the mountains of Laos, the Hmong have struggled with the U.S. legal system, where juries, not leaders of the 18 Hmong clans, determine guilt and innocence. In the years after their arrival, they often ran afoul of local laws when their shamans, or spirit healers, performed religious rituals involving animal sacrifice; when teenage girls were suddenly claimed in marriage; and when Hmong children jumped over fences and swam in neighbors’ swimming pools.
David Haycraft, a Merced family law attorney, described Lo as “a very level-headed, intelligent guy. Because of his temperament, he’s going to make a good judge.”
Where did your journey to becoming a judge begin?
I was born in Sayaboury province on the Thai border in northwestern Laos and left when I was 7. My father, Chong Lo, was a simple farmer and soldier who served with Gen. Vang Pao’s special guerrilla unit in his teens and 20s. In mid-1975, all of a sudden we were told we had to flee because the country had fallen to the communist Pathet Lao. I recall walking through the jungles for two weeks and being carried on my parents’ backs. We had some 20 people in our party – aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents.
We were in Nam Yao refugee camp, 364 miles north of Bangkok, until 1979. Four of my siblings were born there. There was no school, very little food to eat and the Thai guards abused a lot of refugees. My grandmother, like many Hmong, had been using opium for pain and injuries, and they came into our little hut and arrested her and extorted money from my dad before they released her.
How did you get to California?
An aunt and uncle, high military officials, arrived in the very first Hmong wave in 1975 and sponsored us to Orange County. We stayed there for a short time and went to join our immediate clan relatives in Denver, Colorado.
I was 11 and the alphabet was the extent of my English. When I started in school, they put me in the fifth grade. The school had a huge influx of Southeast Asian refugees and they didn’t know what to do with us, so they put me in the corner of the classroom with some coloring books while the rest of the class was doing regular studies.
In the second year they developed ESL classes, so we at least got some extra help. Fortunately I was still young enough to learn English very quickly.
We experienced the fascination of snow for two years, then came back to the Central Valley, settling in Stockton, where I went to middle school and graduated from Tokay High School in Lodi. I was a relatively good student and fortunate to go to UC Davis, where I majored in economics.
Why did you pursue a legal career?
The seed was planted in my high school government class. I told the teacher I wanted to become a psychologist because I really wanted to work with Hmong people struggling with social adjustment. He said psychologists are not what they need; they need lawyers.
The Hmong had nightmares dealing with the legal system – everything from problems with traffic citations, the DMV, schools, the welfare office. Some old folks arrested for minor misdemeanors thought they were going to go to prison for the rest of the their lives and committed suicide in jail in the early days.
I graduated from UCLA School of Law and went to work for a Merced law firm doing any kind of case: criminal defense, family law, personal injury, wrongful termination, corporate transactions. My very first trial was a young Hmong man charged with narcotics possession for sale. Then I decided to focus on civil law. After nine years with the firm, in 2003, I became a solo practitioner.
How did Hmong culture clash with the criminal justice system?
I got involved in some disputes where it’s a “he said, she said” thing and the Hmong came to me and said, “We want to do the cursed-water test. Both sides would drink it and whoever is lying would die.” I’d say, “I’m sorry, I’m not going to ask the judge to do that. They might say you’re trying to kill them; there’s an implicit threat of physical harm.”
Now we’ve been here long enough so Hmong understand that the law of this country is their law as well. But in the early days, the elders in the community would settle not only civil matters, but criminal matters. They’d say, “If there’s a rape or a death, let’s go to the elders and pay some kind of face-saving fine and resolve it,” in direct contradiction of the criminal justice system in this country.
Early on there were many parents who married off their daughters very young and were getting arrested for accessory to statutory rape. In some of those cases where the male was an adult, he was sentenced to county jail and then put on probation, even though the marriage was with the consent of both parents.
Then there were Hmong getting cited for ritual animal sacrifices in the backyard as part of healing or life-and-death ceremonies.
How are you, your family and community reacting to your appointment to the job, which pays $181,292 a year?
I’m honored and excited to make a little bit of history. I’ve received emails, phone calls and texts from far-distant friends and relatives – there’s an overwhelming sense of pride and joy in the community.
My dad, who is 70, said he was happy, and my mom was so excited she teared up. It’s not so much a personal achievement, it’s a strong statement that in America if you work hard enough you can take advantage of the wonderful opportunities that are still open.
Call The Bee’s Stephen Magagnini, (916) 321-1072. Pete Basofin contributed to this story.