By Jackson Benning, contributor
Last Nov. 16, students (including me) from the University of Minnesota and Metropolitan State University visited the courtroom of the Honorable Judge Tony Leung, the first Chinese American federal judge in the state of Minnesota. We were all students from two classes taught by Professor Chang Wang at our respective universities.
The beauty of the United States Federal Building in St. Paul, did not escape the students. Marble floors; pristine, high ceilings; and the sheer silence of the building made us speechless. For most of us, this is the first visit to a federal courtroom. Everyone was excited.
As we entered Judge Leung’s courtroom, none of us wanted to break the silence in the courtroom. The courtroom was spacious with nothing on the walls except for the seal of the United States and a very intricate clock. Judge Leung walked into the room with a typical court entrance, with everyone standing and waiting to get permission to sit down. Instead of inviting us to sit though, he invited us to sit closer, at counsel table and in the jury box. It was at that point that I realized how nice and humble of a man Judge Leung was.
Besides being the first Asian-Pacific American to serve on the federal bench in Minnesota, Leung was also the first Asian-American judge in Minnesota, appointed to the state court in 1994.
Leung came to the United States from Hong Kong as a boy in 1966. Leung earned his bachelor's degree in political science from Yale University, where he earned cum laude honors and received his law degree from New York University School of Law. He was named to the state court by former Gov. Arne Carlson. Prior to his elevation to the Hennepin County bench, he was an equity partner at the local law firm Faegre & Benson. Leung also has earned an International Exchange Diploma from Peking (Beijing) University, the alma mater of Professor Chang Wang.
Judge Leung began with a description of his background and how he got to where he is today. It was interesting hearing his story and how much of life you really can’t control and have to just let happen. The main reason he told us his background was to give life advice such as, “put yourself in a position to be able to do what you want to do” or “when luck turns or opportunity comes, you can use that to your advantage.” I don’t normally accept life advice from someone I just met, but I took his words and really focused on them. Sometimes a situation just feels right and you should remember it. This was one of those situations for me.
Judge Leung then started talking about the types of cases he had in state court and the types of cases he gets in federal court. The biggest distinction he made was that when on duty in state criminal court, he was asked a lot about what the police officer can and cannot do in a situation. Not so while on weekend duty in federal court -- he has never gotten a call. He also separated what is a criminal state court case and what is a criminal federal court case. Criminal state court cases normally are smaller, quicker cases like a robbery, or a single murder, etc. while criminal federal court cases are normally bigger, longer cases that could span over multiple states or internationally.
After explaining the difference between state and federal courts, Judge Leung went on to take questions. One interesting question was, “What painting would you hang in your courtroom if you could?” This question is getting at the common practice of the judge in a courtroom hanging a painting of their “legal heroes” in their courtroom. After some thinking, Judge Leung decided on three people, with the first being: the most impactful: Chief Justice John Marshall (1755-1835), Justice Thurgood Marshall (1908-1993) and Chief Justice Earl Warren (1891-1974). He picked Chief Justice John Marshall because the Chief Justice made the legal system into what it is today by introducing practices such as judicial review and reiterating the Constitution to be the supreme law of the land. He picked Justice Thurgood Marshall because Justice Marshall was the one who advocated equal justice under the law, no matter the situation. And he picked Chief Justice Warren for using his political skills to form a unanimous decision in the case Brown v. Board of Education, which the country desperately needed in a time of extreme segregation. This question made me realize that without powerful people like the ones mentioned above, our country today would be very different. Another important takeaway is to not just follow the norms of a society. Don’t be afraid to break out and support something for which you feel very strongly.
Another interesting question was, “Does being Chinese American change the way you act as a judge?” Judge Leung’s answer was, “It gives me more understanding and sensitivity to people other than the majority.” He went on to say, “People might think that the system is unjust if an entire court is white and they are a minority even if they are guilty. Seeing me on the bench is important because it shows that the system is representative of all people, just like it should be.” I found this very interesting because it really is important for our system of government to be representative of all the types of people in our country, whether it be race, religion, gender or sexuality. If a person is found guilty of a crime by a jury made only by the majority, they might think the system is rigged and not think they are guilty. If this happens, whatever act they committed they will think they were not guilty, and that the only thing they were guilty of was being discriminated against by a majority jury, which is not the point of the trial.
My favorite part of the trip came at the end, where Judge Leung gave us a case study to see how we would act as a judge in sentencing someone, not making the judgment on whether they are guilty or not. The case details didn’t really matter, what mattered was the exercise itself. By making us students decide the sentencing, Judge Leung was taking us into his mind and showing us how he decides cases. He showed us how even if someone is guilty, the sentence could be longer or shorter because the judge decides the sentence and has a certain range of discretion (s)he can exercise.
Overall, the trip to United States District Court for the District of Minnesota was very informative and thought- provoking. It was a very great way of contrasting what we learn in the classroom and what is practiced in this country.
Jackson Benning is a student at the University of Minnesota Honors Program.