By TOM LAVENTURE
AAP staff writer
ST. PAUL (May 22, (2014) — The retirement of Second Judicial District Court Judge Gail Chang Bohr came at the end of March, and with it the tenure of the first Asian American judge to serve Ramsey County.
Chang Bohr was elected to the open judicial seat on Nov. 4, 2008. The Saint Paul resident began her term on Jan. 5, 2009.
“The time has flown since I became a judge,” Chang-Bohr said. “I have enjoyed my time on the bench and feel incredibly lucky to have had the opportunity to serve the people of Minnesota as a judge.”
Bohr will still keep some duties as she was appointed to serve as a Senior Judge from April 1, 2014, to June 30, 2015.
“I am a Senior Judge which means I can serve as a judge anywhere in the State,” Chang-Bohr said.
According to her official biography, Bohr was born and raised in Jamaica, as the ninth of 15 children to Chinese parents who were shopkeepers. She came to the United States to attend Wellesley College in Massachusetts on a full scholarship in 1962. She went on to earn a Master’s Degree from Simmons College School of Social Work and got her law degree after a 19-year career in clinical social work with children and families in 1991.
After clerking and working for a private law firm, Chang-Bohr served as executive director of the Children’s Law Center from 1995 to 2008. Her programs changed the way that children are represented in the foster care system and in court.
In 2008, Chang-Bohr was named one of the top 10 legal newsmakers of the decade by Minnesota Lawyer.
Chang-Bohr said she knew she was very qualified to be a judge and that it was important to have people in court and on the bench that reflected the fast growing diversity of the Twin Cities and in Ramsey County especially She applied several times but did not get past the Judicial Selection Review or become one of the governor’s appointed judges.
“I was elected to an open judicial seat,” Chang-Bohr said. “I worked hard in the campaign and I believe the APIA vote mattered.”
Chang-Bohr did not challenge an incumbent judge and her opponent had served in the state legislature. She prevailed by 8,427 votes, representing 52 percent of the vote.
“Becoming a judge fulfilled my long-held desire,” she said.
Being the first Asian Pacific American judge in Ramsey County was significant when it has the greatest number of APIA citizens in Minnesota, she said.
“I found that my knowledge of culture helped to cut through barriers and that I knew of resources and services in the APIA community that were not widely known by others in the court system,” she said. “Moreover, I have been told that seeing a face that looks like theirs makes people feel the system will be fair.”
A judge has the ability to affect lives by a decision, and that is an important and demanding responsibility, Chang-Bohr said. So a judge must work with people all of the time. “My previous career as a social worker served me well as a judge,” she said. “I know how to listen to people and I understand the situation of the individuals who appear in front of me.”
Chang-Bohr said the best advice she ever got was from retired Supreme Court Justice Esther Tomljanovich. She emphasized that most people who come before the court are worried, anxious, and nervous.
Whether for a minor crime or a major one, a family or juvenile situation, the defendants and complainants come before a judge and expect to be heard and to be treated fairly and justly, she added.
“I believe in listening to people and treating them with respect even when I am ruling against them,” Chang-Bohr said. “The human connection matters.”
As a social worker, attorney, nonprofit director, and judge, Chang-Bohr advocated for her clients. As a judge, she said it is important to pay attention to what is going on in someone’s life to fashion a sentence that is appropriate.
“On more than one occasion I ordered grief counseling in addition to the sentence I handed down where it was apparent that the DWI defendant was struggling with the loss of a loved one and alcohol was being used as a mask for the feelings of loss.” she said.
As the director of the Children’s Law Center of Minnesota, Chang-Bohr advocated for changes in the law. As a judge she said there was no opportunity to enforce any particular law that she advocated for, but said her knowledge of the system was important in uncovering when the law was not working.
“On more than one occasion when I was in Family Court, petitioners were trying to transfer custody of a child back to parents from whom the child had been removed and the county was not present in court as required by law,” she said. “I continued the cases until the county had an opportunity to investigate.”
The notice to the county attorney was slipping through the cracks in family court. When Chang-Bohr expressed concern about this lack of involvement by the county, the law was changed to require that a change of a child’s custody back to parents after a protection proceeding must take place in juvenile protection court.
A judge is often tasked with making decisions in the most difficult and tragic of circumstances. Chang-Bohr recalled some of the saddest cases involved children in delinquency committing crimes.
Family problems where parents seem to put themselves before their children, were also difficult, as were truant children not attending school shows that the family is not valuing education, she said.
Despite the difficult decisions, Chang-Bohr said she enjoyed everything about her role as a judge.
“Besides being able to affect lives in positive ways, being a judge is intellectually stimulating,” she said. “Every day on the bench is different. You are presented with different legal issues and have to make decisions on new areas of the law. If it is an area of law that is not familiar, you are challenged to learn the law and apply it to the situation in front of you.”
Over time, Chang-Bohr said her joy for the job grew as feedback confirmed that her rulings had made a difference. She received letters from defendants who turned their lives around, thanking her for something she said to them at the time of sentencing.
Civil unions are a duty of judges and Chang-Bohr said she enjoys the weddings.
“I find that the majority of weddings I have performed were for APIA couples,” she said. “I was interested to learn that APIA couples do seek out an APIA judge.”
She also enjoy doing adoptions.
While holding Family Court, Chang-Bohr said her decisions often affected children and it was “important to take the time to understand the facts, apply the law, and make a well-considered decision.”
In the community, Chang-Bohr enjoyed using her position to become involved with the APIA community. She particularly enjoyed meeting with law students and young attorneys.
Now in retirement, Chang-Bohr said she can now participate in conferences that she had to decline while serving on the bench. She continues her involvement with the APIA community and mentors young lawyers and the next generation of APIA leaders.
In just the past few months, she has already moderated and participated on a panel for a webcast on Human Trafficking; moderated a panel on the child’s perspective for a Symposium on Improving the Responses to Children and Families at Risk; presented on children in court proceedings for a State of the Child Summit; and gave opening remarks for Women’s Access to Leadership 2014 Conference.
This past week she volunteered for the Open Doors to Federal Courts initiative, a program to introduce high school students to the Federal Justice System. She spoke to high school classes about her career path.
At William Mitchell College of Law, Chang-Bohr talks to students high school students about, Dred Scott, an important United States Supreme Court case that provided the trigger for the Civil War.
Chang-Bohr has accepted an invitation from the National Center for State Courts to offer technical assistance in their Juvenile Justice Projects in the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States – and St. Lucia and Trinidad, specifically, in summer and fall of this year.
“It will involve conducting training of magistrates and the setting up of pilot family courts where juveniles are adjudicated,” she said. “I met the NCSC Senior Program Manager for Juvenile Justice Projects in 2011 when I was in my home town in Jamaica, and was on a radio program where I talked about ways to improve juvenile justice in Jamaica. We kept in touch over the years and now I am able to accept her invitation to participate in projects that improve the juvenile justice system in the Caribbean.”