Sophia Vuelo was born in Laos during wartime and raised in Wisconsin by a widowed mother who could barely write her own name. On Thursday, she became Minnesota's first Hmong-American judge, and only one of a few in the country.

"Never let your circumstances or your birthplace define who you are … ," Vuelo told a packed crowd that included high school classmates, community leaders and young girls.

Vuelo was sworn in as the 29th member of the Ramsey County District Court bench. She switched between English and Hmong as she addressed attendees, tearing up as she recalled the Lutheran church that "took a chance" by helping to resettle her family.

"That has made all of the difference to me," she said. "We were poorer than a church mouse."

Vuelo, her six siblings and their mother moved to Eau Claire, Wis., in April 1978. Her father died in combat during the Vietnam War.

Speakers at Vuelo's ceremony touted her wit, her experience and her qualifications for the job. But in her remarks, she briefly touched on the challenges she faces as a Hmong-American.

"I still get the occasional look from folks when they say, 'Where are you from originally?' " Vuelo said, emphasizing the last word.

She paused.

"I am a cheesehead from Wisconsin!" Vuelo exclaimed.

Vuelo's classmate from Eau Claire Memorial High School, Bria Radtke, told the crowd that Vuelo was elected senior class president in 1990 in a school of more than 400 mostly white students.

"Sophia," Radtke said, "your life's journey has been overcoming obstacles, and along the way, you've lifted up so many people."

Vuelo was running a solo law firm in November when Gov. Mark Dayton appointed her to replace retired Judge Margaret Marrinan. At the time, Vuelo was handling juvenile protection and family and criminal cases.

She earned her bachelor's degree from the University of Minnesota and graduated law school at the former Hamline University School of Law.

She previously worked as a special assistant Ramsey County attorney, assistant Ramsey County public defender, managing attorney at Catholic Charities and assistant city attorney in Rochester.

Bao Vang, president and CEO of Hmong American Partnership (HAP), said Vuelo was instrumental in helping the nonprofit form its philosophies in helping clients with legal matters. Vuelo served on HAP's board of directors about nine years ago.

"It's a real historical moment to have that kind of representation," Vang said of Vuelo's appointment. "People really, really fear the system, so I think that having someone there who represents and looks like the community is a bridge."

Vuelo is widely believed to be only the third Hmong-American judge in the country.

Diversity on the bench

She joins a growing number of district judges of color in Minnesota. According to the state court administrator's office, people of color made up 9 percent of district judges as of this month, compared to 6 percent five years ago and 3.5 percent 10 years ago. (The data is dependent on self-reported information; many judges did not specify their race.)

Vuelo also represents a growing trend toward gender diversity. Women today make up 44 percent of the state's district judges compared to 35 percent five years ago and 28 percent 10 years ago.

Vuelo began exploring a bid for an open judgeship about three years ago, according to Minnesota Court of Appeals Judge Michael Kirk, who spoke at her swearing-in. Kirk told attendees that Vuelo stood out from other students in a trial class he taught by pushing back the hardest, and by singing verses from the song "Unforgettable," popularized by Nat King Cole, while arguing a case.

Aaliyah Vang, 13, and Priya Yang, 15, attended the ceremony with a group of peers from the nonprofit Girls in Action.

"Her message was very inspiring to me," Yang said. "It just makes you feel like you want to do a lot more, too, just like her."

"She might have too much pressure on her …," Vang said, "but I think she should just do her best and focus on what she's doing, because she's doing good."

Chao Xiong • 612-270-4708

Twitter: @ChaoStrib