Jacqueline Nguyen spent her first few months in America living in a tent in a refugee camp, one of thousands who fled to the U.S. after the fall of South Vietnam.
Four decades later, after a career as a federal prosecutor and judge, she's now on the shortlist for a seat on the Supreme Court. After the death of Justice Antonin Scalia last week, speculation has grown that she could become the first Asian-American and first refugee on the Court.
While observers believe President Obama is more likely to choose other candidates—including appeals court judge Sri Srinivasan, who would also be the first Asian-American justice—Nguyen has some big draws. In 2012, the Senate confirmed her to the Ninth Circuit Appeals Court with a 91-3 vote, which could make it difficult for Republicans to explain why they wouldn’t back her again. If she was confirmed, the Supreme Court would have a higher number of women than any point in history. And her family story is undeniably powerful.
Nguyen has already presided over thousands of cases in state and federal courts, handling everything from brutal murders and human trafficking convictions to devilishly complex patent lawsuits. Like many nominees, she doesn’t seem to have political leanings or a real record on many of the hot button issues facing the Court, but some might see a pro-law enforcement trend in a few decisions.
What's clear is that Nguyen already has a history of breaking barriers. She was the first Vietnamese-American to become a federal judge when she was confirmed for the district position in 2009, and the first female Asian-American federal appeals judge in 2012.
Born Hong-Ngoc Thi Nguyen in 1965, Nguyen grew up in Dalat, a small town north of Saigon. Her father was a major in the South Vietnam army, and she remembers an idyllic childhood surrounded by extended family. That changed in April 1975, at age nine, when the South government collapsed at the end of the Vietnam War. Her parents spirited Nguyen and her five young siblings to a U.S. air base in the capitol, leaving everything behind, she remembered in an article for a local judicial magazine in 2006.
An American friend won them a coveted spot on a packed plane out of the country. When they arrived in the U.S., her family spent their first few months living in the sprawling refugee camp on Camp Pendleton in San Diego, sharing a single tent with two other families. Then they moved to Los Angeles, with $5 to start a new life. Her parents worked odd jobs, and Nguyen would help her mother work late into the night, peeling and cutting apples and later running a small donut shop.
Nguyen got a bachelor’s degree from Occidental College with a full scholarship (only a few years after Obama went there) and a law degree from UCLA. She got a job at a big L.A. law firm—with a salary larger than her parents had ever made—but moved to the U.S. Attorney’s office after a couple of years. “I knew that [private practice] wasn’t my passion, it wasn’t what I wanted to wake up in the morning doing every day,” she said in a 2015 video.
As a prosecutor, she handled big fraud investigations, organized crime and drug trafficking. One case involved a wiretap of a Russian organized crime group that was smuggling sex slaves from Ukraine to the U.S. In 2000, she prosecuted the first case in the country that led to a defendant’s conviction for providing material support to a terrorist organization—now a typical charge for alleged supporters of ISIS.
One of her biggest wins came in 1999, when she successfully prosecuted the leaders of what was at the time the largest international smuggling ring ever charged in U.S. history. A group of Chinese importers were escaping millions of dollars in tariffs by concealing textiles and other goods. William Carter, a lawyer who worked with Nguyen, remembered how she questioned witnesses and made arguments to the jury while eight and a half months pregnant. In court, he said, she speaks softly and deliberately, in a way that commands a jury’s attention.
“She’s a brilliant lawyer, a great litigator, and a wonderful colleague,” Carter said. “She should be on the top of the shortlist.”
Nguyen became a state judge in 2002, overseeing a courtroom that sometimes saw more than 100 cases a day. She was elevated to the federal bench in L.A. in 2009 after the Senate confirmed her 97-0. Three years later, she moved to the Ninth Circuit appeals court with another Senate vote of 91-3.
Like many judges, it’s hard to tell if Nguyen has any political leanings. Carter said he never heard her talk about politics. She hasn’t made any federal campaign contributions, according to FEC data. (Nguyen declined an interview request through an aide.)
As a judge, she’s handled intricate patent cases dealing with everything from gyroscopes to credit card readers, as well as criminal prosecutions and a range of other topics. Here are a couple of notable decisions she’s made over the years:
- In 2011, a group of pro-life activists sued Los Angeles City College arguing that the school had prevented them from exercising their First Amendment rights by preventing a protest. Nguyen ruled for the college in summary judgment, arguing that the college campus wasn’t a public forum and the ban was for a valid purpose.
- Two Pasadena police officers shot Leroy Barnes, an African-American man, at a traffic stop in February 2009. The officers said Barnes had pulled a gun on them; Barnes' family claimed the gun was planted and sued the city. Nguyen dismissed their lawsuit in 2011, agreeing with the city that the shooting was justifiable and the family lacked standing to sue.
- On the appeals court in 2013, Nguyen wrote the sole dissent in a decision on another police brutality case. The two other justices ruled in favor of Donald Gravelet-Blondin, who was tasered by police in Washington State, calling the episode an unconstitutionally excessive use of force. Nguyen argued that the court should have dismissed Blondin's lawsuit against the officer, writing, "the majority goes badly astray because it loses sight of the specific context of this case and employs hindsight rather than viewing the scene through the eyes of a reasonable officer."
She lives with her husband, Po Kim—a former assistant U.S. Attorney who worked in the same office as she did—and their two teenage kids.
Nguyen has spoken out about the lack of diversity in the judicial system. “Nationwide, people of color make up one quarter of the population, yet they make up only 10% of lawyers and only 4% of partners in major law firms. Well over 70% of all judges are white,” she told a Vietnamese-American group in 2010. “This lack of diversity has contributed to deep mistrust of the justice system in many minority communities, including our own.”
In law school, she volunteered with the Asian Pacific American Legal Center, a nonprofit that helped guide Asian immigrants through the process of naturalizing or getting citizenship. On the bench in state court, she also took care to explain proceedings in a way that immigrant defendants can understand, she has said.
“Like my family, many immigrants view America from a unique vantage point,” she wrote in an op-ed last year in the San Jose Mercury-News. “Although most Americans share an immigrant history, those who personally faced hardships like war, poverty, and persecution bring a fresh and powerful appreciation of America's ideals of liberty and justice."
Casey Tolan is a National News Reporter for Fusion based in New York City.