Judge Paul Lo tried to hold back tears Friday as he spoke about the men and women who paved the way to his spot on the Merced County Superior Court bench.
“This moment goes to a generation of quiet but brave and unselfish Hmong-Americans who suffered, endured and sacrificed much,” the 45-year-old said. “Those of us who grew up in this country are beneficiaries of the American Dream because of their sacrifices.”
Lo made history Friday when he became the first Hmong person to become a judge in the United States. The Merced Theatre was packed with hundreds of people who came to see the ceremony. Those in attendance gave multiple standing ovations.
“I’m glad to play a small part in this historic moment,” Lo said.
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Gov. Jerry Brown appointed Lo, a veteran attorney, to the Superior Court bench in late December. The historic significance of the appointment has been confirmed by the governor’s office and Asian Americans Advancing Justice, a civil liberties advocacy group.
Lo spoke no English when he came to the United States from Laos at the age of 11, but eventually mastered the language, working hard through high school, college and law school. He lauded the opportunities that this country provided, saying he would have had few of them as the child of poor farmers in a remote Hmong village.
He held back tears as he described the harrowing journey people of his parents’ generation made to reach the United States. Many Hmong people braved thousands of miles of jungle, raging waters and refugee camps after fighting on the side of the U.S. during the Vietnam War.
Presiding Judge Brian McCabe gave Lo the oath of office. The two men have known each other since 1994 and have worked as associates and partners at a law firm. McCabe described Lo as intelligent, hard-working, efficient and effective.
After he took the oath, Lo put on his official judge’s robe. Attending the ceremony with his wife, Kaonou, he thanked his family and five children, whom he called “the pride and joy of my life.”
Merced’s Mayor Pro-Tem Noah Lor addressed the audience in Hmong, thanking the generations of Hmong who made the trek to the U.S.
Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, praised Lo and told the crowd that the judicial branch plays an important role in the American system of governance. He also said Lo’s story serves as an example of what so many immigrants aspire to. “This is a reaffirmation of what America’s all about,” he said.
Another guest speaker, UC Merced Chancellor Dorothy Leland, spoke fondly of Lo, who was a supporter of the university before it ever broke ground. “Paul is a living example of the power of education to transform lives and to transform communities,” she said.
Lo will now preside over civil cases in Merced County. His starting salary as a judge is $181,292, according to the governor’s office.
Lo was admitted to the State Bar of California in 1994 and has been a solo legal practitioner since 2003, according to State Bar records. He earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Davis and his law degree from UCLA School of Law.
Merced has the fifth largest Hmong-American population in the country.