An interview with Mary Yu, Washington State’s first Asian American, Latina, and openly gay woman to serve on the state Supreme Court, on the intersection of the criminal justice system and mental health issues.
By: Vi Le, Lucy Lee, Robert Petrisor, Anisha Singh, Alissa Starling, Dylan Withers
The University of Washington, Bothell School of Business
Photo credit: Washington State Administrative Office of the Courts.
On February 7th of 2023, a virtual classroom of anxious students waited in anticipation of Washington State Supreme Court Justice Mary Yu’s arrival. Though it was eerily dark outside, glowing light illuminated screens with a positive warmth. Professor Umetsu, being an attorney herself, was buzzing with enthusiasm. Our team, being hunched over computers, jolted upright in excitement once Justice Yu joined in moments later.
When appointed in 2014, Justice Mary Yu became the first openly gay justice, the first Asian American justice, and the first Latina justice to represent Washington State as a judge of the highest authority. Whilst conducting this interview, we specifically addressed the intersection between the criminal justice system and individuals who experience mental health concerns.
She began by walking us through her unintentional start in the legal field:
What inspired you to take this career path of law and justice?
MY: You know it was really accidental, in the sense that I didn’t really plan a career in law and justice. I was doing community organizing work. I was more interested in social justice and I got to the place where I recognized that the tools that a lawyer had access to were the tools I needed to bring about change. I kept looking around and thinking about,how frustrating it was to keep trying to convince people to do the right thing. And then I just came to the belief that there needed to be more; that the law could make people do the right thing. So I got a law degree and then while studying I fell in love with Moot Court. While it was not real court, I did get the chance to read and practice those trial skills. And then I decided, because I liked it so much, that I would try to be a trial lawyer. So I got a job in the prosecutor’s office, in Seattle, King County, because that’s where you have the opportunity to try cases right away.
And, it really was. Over time, I began to realize that I could use the skills to try and advance justice in a different way. I never thought about being a judge until a judge came to me and said you know what, I’m thinking of retiring, and I think you’d be a great judge.and I have to admit for the first time, you know, I thought, me? I just hadn’t seen myself in that role or having that ability or kind of power. And so, in some ways I didn’t plan it, it wasn’t until somebody came to me and said you should think about this, and you should do this because I’m retiring, and you should replace me. Then I had to decide was I worthy, could I do it, and would I have a chance of actually succeeding at it. So in so many ways, it was really a backwards way of getting here. I didn’t plan it all out.
She discussed the role of mental health in the legal and criminal justice career spaces, shedding insight regarding the unfortunately high rate of mental health concerns in lawyers. She also provided context on how the demands of such a career contribute:
What is your experience, or have you had experience with mental health, and how does it relate to your profession?
MY: The profession that has the highest level of mental health issues including depression, suicide, alcohol, and drug abuse are lawyers. So we have to ask ourselves as a profession, why is that so? And I think part of it has to do with long working hours. Part of it has to do with the inability sometimes to share information because you’re bound by rules of confidentiality. So you can’t come home and talk about what your client just told you, because of confidentiality, and the tendency is to just to keep it all in; to over identify with the clients’ problems or concerns. It is important to recognize that there are healthy outlets for managing the stress. There are ways to balance all of it, without taking it all in or without somehow abandoning everything else in life, because it isn’t just about work. But there’s a tendency for lawyers to overwork. We bill by the hour, right? So the more you work, the more money you make. The more money you make, the happier you think you are.
And then we realize that no amount of money is going to buy you happiness. It might buy you a nice house. But, if you never are in it, and you never see your kids or significant other at the end of the day; . that’s pretty empty. It doesn’t take long for people to sink into depression, and people begin to question their value or worth. So you know all of us have experienced that. I don’t know a single lawyer who hasn’t really said, I’m feeling burnt out and not just a normal burnt out, but questioning whether or not they should stay in the profession, questioning whether or not they need to shift some things in their lives. So it’s a matter of coping. And I don’t mean to oversimplify it. I don’t believe that you can put mental health into a little compartment, and you say well, it happens to these people, and it’s only this. I think all of us suffer at any given point in time in life. And it’s just a matter of managing it and recognizing it and owning it. But I think that’s so normal to say, ‘I’m having a tough day, right?’ or ‘I’m depressed for a variety of reasons.’ and then finding how to manage that depression. Sometimes, it’s going to be physiological, sometimes not. But I think managing, identifying and knowing your own mental health is really important.
Justice Yu spoke about her experience being a minority, and how that affects her perception of minority communities in the justice system. In doing so, she acknowledged existing disparities regarding incarceration rates for people of color and suicide rates for those within the LGBTQ+ community. The Justice identified the obligation those with power in criminal legal system have to call out such injustices, and fairly uphold the law:
How have your experiences with the legal system shaped your views about the system of crime and punishment towards LGBTQ+ groups or minorities, and what about that concerns your judicial role?
MY: Well, you know the data and the evidence shows that there are more people of color incarcerated, than anybody else in the sense that we are incarcerated at a disproportionate rate in terms of the broader population. So, for any judge, that really requires your attention, right? You have to ask the question, what is wrong with our system and what are we doing? And it really requires studying and looking at it and under the law really trying to address the policies. So for us it’s calling some things out. It may have to do with policing, it might have to do with where the resources are. You know, we know for a fact there’s crime being committed in white communities, and they are just not prosecuted at the same rate that they might be in minority communities and I think that we have an obligation to call that out. An obligation to try and say the law needs to be applied fairly across the board to everyone.
It’s not easy to do that, right? It’s not easy to do that with the LGBTQ community. For us, the issue doesn’t even have to do with law enforcement; we’re losing youth. We have the highest suicide rate among all young people. And so that’s even before there is contact by police. That’s even before there’s even prosecution or being dragged into the system somehow. But I think that as judges, we have an obligation to try to make our system really fair and better. It’s hard. It’s a massive system, and not everybody agrees with how to do it. I happen to be a little bit more radical in regard to juveniles than some of my colleagues on the court. So, not everybody agrees with the same views and that’s what makes us a good court. We just have different perspectives and we all bring them to the table. I believe in redemption and I don’t believe anybody should be in prison for the rest of their life.
She continued to comment on how incarceration, rehabilitation, and reintegration all contribute to shaping offenders from the point at which they enter the system, to when they come out. To do this, she references the Netherlands’ famous rehabilitative approach to criminal justice:
What do you think is the appropriate answer for people who have entered the system and been let out and then continued to repeat and cause damage and crime towards other people? What do you think is the solution so that society isn’t at risk of these people continuing to do what they’ve done?
MY: Let me say that I don’t want to minimize repeat offenders. I mean that’s a reality that exists and one of the obligations we all have is to protect society in some way so I want to start with saying that’s a principle and that’s something I believe in.
At the same time, I also believe that the first day that you are going to jail or prison ought to be about your reentry and rehabilitation. There has got to be a way that we are really trying to help people reintegrate into society, and if that was the mission and purpose of prison, I’m convinced people would come out different. If people are given the opportunity to have services and programs in prison that address the underlying issue, they would be different.
I haven’t had a chance to visit the the Netherlands but I have read about it and have heard from those who have visited, that their model begins with the first day you go in and you’re working on how you’re going to be leaders in terms of how would you actually come back into society as somebody with some skills and a job and an opportunity to address again all the issues that we’ve been facing. Their success rate is really high and they don’t have the same level of repeat offenders that we do.
Justice Yu proceeded to identify a crucial part of addressing mental health inequity in the justice system, citing financial backing as the basis of the solution:
What pitfalls of the American criminal justice system need to be amended to deliver equitable support to those of mental illness and how do you propose this is best achieved?
MY: Well I would say that you know, it’s all financial. I would say right now that the legislature is being enlightened and there are leaders like Senator Manka Dhingra who for the first time are talking about the legislature having to step in and address the mental health needs of the people in the state of Washington and it’s only going to be with additional resources. It can’t be that we just talk about it. It really means putting dollars behind it and setting up community resource centers for some people who are truly in an acute moment and there needs to be someplace else to go to other than a shelter; there needs to be something short of civil commitment and it’s just gonna take money.
Justice Yu graciously concluded our conversation with a helpful piece of advice directed to students of all ages. She encourages those who need help to speak out and demand it:
What advice would you give to an ambitious student struggling with mental illness who feels underrepresented within their community?
MY: I would say, demand the services that you need, and push back. You belong here, you belong and you have the right to participate and the right to demand services in every single way. At the end of the day believe in the gifts that you have, and that we will all be enriched by it.
Through our conversation with Justice Yu, she delivered a theme of acceptance. Everyone needs and deserves to feel acceptance and belonging in society regardless of race, sexuality, socioeconomic status, or other factors. Going through the court system is a taxing and draining process that takes a significant toll on the mental health of all individuals involved: lawyers, judges, defendants, friends, and families. NAMI provides resources and support for all those who need it in tough times. With a Justice of Mary Yu’s character on Washington’s supreme court, the time has come for those who have felt silenced to be heard.
If you or a loved one need support for your mental health check out NAMI Seattle’s Support Groups or reach out to their Helpline. Call or text (425)- 298-5315
This interview has been condensed for content and clarity.
This article is a collaborative piece created by a group of University of Washington Bothell School of Business students from Professor Laura Umetsu’s Business Writing course. Thank you to Jennifer Sanchez and Justice Mary Yu for their contributions to the development of this post.
To learn more about the Washington State Supreme Court’s commitment to racial justice, click here.