By TOM LAVENTURE
AAP staff writer
ST. PAUL, Minn. (Sept. 1, 2010) – After a decade of service in the public legal sector, Sophia Ntxawm Vuelo has opened her own private practice, Vuelo Law Firm, located in St. Paul.
Vuelo’s fascination for the law began in her early young adult life. She was raised in Eau Claire, Wisc. Her father, Cher Xiong Vue, was a civilian soldier and killed during the Vietnam War before she was even born; leaving behind Vuelo, six siblings and her mother, the late Ma. X. Vue. In a family that valued education, many of her older siblings attended college and she excelled academically.
“I was fortunate to be young when we came to the U.S. and I got a full K-12 education in this country,” Vuelo said.
She enjoyed growing up in Eau Claire, and said she felt connected to her community and her classmates. In fact, Vuelo was elected her Eau Claire Memorial High School 1990 class president and Homecoming queen.
The small city life, in her experience, allowed for interaction to eliminate prejudices that are sometimes more prevalent in the big city where she said stereotypes tend to persist and are harder to dismantle.
“I felt accepted and transitioned well,” she said. “I believe in the power of getting to know each other as individuals, and then once that is done, the racial stereotypes will erode naturally.”
She applies this experience today to her community involvement by serving on the board of directors of Hmong American Partnership and the Hmong American Bar Association to create coalitions between groups of people to break down barriers and to build on the common good we all share. She believes that “once people look beyond racial and economic differences they will find shared values.”
It was during her college years at the University of Minnesota that would shape Vuelo’s legal career. As a history major she said she was in awe over how much there was to learn about American history that is taught in most high schools and of the Asian American experience that is taught more often in colleges now.
Vuelo enrolled in Asian American history classes and learned about the struggle of Asian American immigrant groups that fought for racial justice and equality long before Hmong refugees came to this country. She said her passion for racial justice continued to be fueled upon learning about the Chinese Exclusion Era of the 1800’s, to the exploitation of Asian labor as indentured servants and coolies, to the WWII internment camps of Japanese Americans, now viewed as a racist decision of the U.S. Government that was upheld by the Supreme Court in the landmark case of Korematsu v. United States – claiming a wartime constitutional necessity to deprive Japanese American citizens of their individual rights – based on a perceived threat of potential espionage.
Vuelo applied her knowledge of past racial discrimination to current issues faced by Hmong and other recent Southeast Asian refugees. She said she is also concerned with the post-9/11 anti-Muslim sentiment that continues to this day and keeps a watch out for racist laws from our past and to avoid repeating the same mistakes.
Vuelo said she also learned that the beauty of America is that its legal system is a “tremendous tool for social justice – and that it can transform the social and political status of an entire group of people.” She was fascinated with how the legal system changes lives; such as giving women the right to vote in 1910, overturning racist laws that once prohibited certain Asian immigrant groups from entering this country, and changing laws that deemed interracial marriages to be criminal behavior (Loving v. Virginia, 1967).
“And of course we are all well aware of Martin Luther King and how he worked with the system to change our country’s civil rights laws,” Vuelo said. “I realized in my early adulthood that I could use the legal system to change unjust laws, and ultimately affect people’s lives for the better.”
This insight motivated Vuelo to become an attorney as her way to impact society.
“I have always had an interest in doing what is best for the public good, what will help enhance the lives of the people in our community,” she added.
Vuelo went on to graduate from Hamline University School of Law in 1998 and earned her Juris Doctorate.
After practicing law for 12 years, Vuelo said she is still guided by her ideals and considers herself a civil rights lawyer at heart – whether a prosecutor or defense attorney, she said ordinary people are all impacted by the law in some capacity.
Vuelo has served Ramsey County as both a prosecutor and a public defender. More recently she was a prosecuting attorney for the City of Rochester in Olmstead County.
Vuelo said that as a prosecutor she was in a unique position to dispense justice and work within the realm of protecting the public.
“The reward in being a prosecutor is that you can hold someone accountable for a crime they have committed or when they have violated another person’s sense of safety, such as domestic abuse cases,” she said.
As a prosecutor, however; she said the lesson was learning not to rush to conclusions. All too often, she said minority communities can be stereotyped by law enforcement and the legal system.
Vuelo recalls this was true in a rape case where a police park ranger testified at trial that “Hmong women are prisoners of their own home and Hmong men as a culture tend to abuse and dominate Hmong women.”
Vuelo said domestic violence cases have given the Hmong American community a negative image that it did not necessarily deserve. She said that it is a problem in the community – like every community – but that Hmong Americans as a group do not condone or accept domestic violence as part of the culture.
In her heart, Vuelo is still fascinated with the law and how it affects people’s lives. She continues to be concerned with racial equality.
For example, Vuelo believes there needs to be more diversity among the attorneys, judges, probation officers, and law enforcement who work in the criminal justice system. She believes that the lack of diversity within the criminal justice system impacts the disporportionate number of people of color who are put behind Minnesota bars despite their smaller population
While Vuelo enjoyed being a prosecutor and representing the state, she also wanted the opportunity to help advocate for individuals as they navigate through the legal system.
Today, as a private attorney, Vuelo practices in several legal areas but her expertise remains with criminal law. Relatively few attorneys have both a prosecution and criminal defense background.
She said her past experience with a wide range of cases from traffic matters, to DWI’s, assaults, theft, and homicide – allows her to better negotiate cases effectively as a private attorney. She said this would be of comfort to clients to know she will fight to get a case dismissed when it would be an injustice to prosecute someone who has done nothing illegal.
Vuelo said that almost everyone will need an attorney for a civil or criminal matter at some point in their lives. She said that the trust of a client to advocate on their behalf is a privilege.
She said that when representing a client charged with a crime it is important to take the time to explain the charges, explain the legal process, listen to their concerns, and together explore all of the possible options.
The goal, she said, is to get the client back on track and restore a sense of wholeness to their life.
“That is a role that I take very seriously,” she added.
In addition to criminal law, Vuelo Law Firm also handles personal injury cases, immigration law matters, and family law cases.
Vuelo is married to Muaj C. Lo, M.D., who completed his studies at the University of Minnesota Medical School and is now practicing family medicine at Luther Midelfort-Mayo Health System in Eau Claire, Wisc.
She combined their last names to create a unique Hmong American last name, Vuelo. The couple resides in Hudson where they raise two children together.
Raised in a Hmong American community that embraced its accomplishments as it endured the challenges of transition, Vuelo said she wants her children to move past labels and assumptions based on one’s race – to a world with leaders and every day people who look like them.
Vuelo said her goals are not grandiose. She just wants to leave this world in a little better place than when she inherited it.
“I have kids and as I think about their future, I don’t want them to experience the same hardships that we did as minorities,” she added. “I want all future generations to have a better life.”
Vuelo Law Firm is located at 1885 University Ave., Suite 111, St. Paul, MN 55104. Call 612-381-7820 and visit www.vuelolawfirm.com.