State's 1st Hmong-American Judge on Journey from Laos to Minnesota's Judicial System

January 15, 2018 09:59 PM

"I am just a former refugee kid who wanted to make a little difference in our world." – Ramsey County District Court Judge Sophia Vuelo.

The reverend Dr. Martin Luther King's famous words, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere," are posted in the office of a woman in the Ramsey County Courthouse. That woman, Sophia Vuelo, is the first first female Hmong-American judge appointed in not just Minnesota, but the country. And she says she's one of just three judges of Hmong descent in the U.S., and possibly in the world.


Dr. King's words resonate with her because she believes deeply the dream of life, liberty and justice for all was, and will always be, possible in America. She said she is a product of that allegiance to America.

Her journey started in Laos. Vuelo was born to a mother who'd lost her husband, Sophia's father, just three months before Sophia was born.

"There was ... the Vietnam War, and because (Laos was) engaged in the war and because of siding with the United States, we had to leave," she said. "No one tells you those things. You just leave because if you stay behind you will die. We fled Laos, we lived in Thailand in the refugee camp for three years." 

She was only 4 years old. She spent the next three years "oblivious to the hardship and the death around me," she said. But it was the only life she knew. "I remember running around trying to chase dragonflies, I remember I  loved it when it rained because it was so hot in Thailand."

Vuelo was a child of poverty then. And even when the U.S. allowed her family to immigrate to America as refugees.

"We came to this country without a dime to our name," she said. "The Trinity Lutheran Church in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, showered us with thick coats, we were treated with warmth and kindness."

Minnesota has the largest Hmong population per capita in the country. The numbers:


  • 2016:  73,110
  • 2015:  69,020
  • 2014:  76,871
  • 2013:  74,723
  • 2012:  65,475

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, 2012-2016 American Community Surveys 1-Year Estimates

That kindness, she believes, shaped Vuelo and her siblings.

"Only when you feel loved and kindness can you give back kindness a thousand times more over," she said.

Vuelo gave back by becoming a lawyer. "I worked with indigent clients, I represented the government as a prosecutor, I had my own law practice," she said. "I did family law, criminal law and juvenile protection law."

Earlier this month, 40 years after she first landed in America and on the very day of the 11th anniversary of her mother's death, Vuelo was publicly sworn in as a judge on the Ramsey County District Court. Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton had appointed Vuelo Nov. 30 of last year.

"I am first and foremost a judge, and I happen to be a judge of Hmong-American descent," she said. Her purpose, she said, is bigger than who she is. 

"I hope when people enter the legal system, they will feel they were respected and heard and treated with dignity," she said.

Vuelo knows she's proof that a seat at the table of justice and the halls of power is possible, even for a refugee. 


Farrah Fazal

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