It is an honor today to publish this post by our distinguished alumna, the Honorable Carla Wong McMillian, Judge on the Georgia Court of Appeals since 2013. Born in Augusta, Georgia, she earned her Georgia Law J.D. degree summa cum laude in 1998. She is the first Asian Pacific American state appellate judge ever to be appointed in the Southeast, and, since 2014, the first Asian American to be elected to a statewide office in Georgia. Judge McMillian also serves as President-Elect of the Georgia Asian Pacific American Bar Association (GAPABA). Reflecting on these achievements in this essay, which we reprint courtesy of and with thanks to the Georgia Asian American Times, she writes:
I am proud to be an American. I am equally as proud of my Asian American heritage.
I grew up in Augusta, Georgia, where the Chinese community has had a long history. The Chinese first immigrated to the city in 1872 to help build an extension of the Augusta Canal. These Chinese men — and it was all men in those days – began sending for their wives and children, and word spread that Augusta was a good place to immigrate and to make a new life.
My father’s parents were some of those who heard from others in their villages in southern China about Augusta. They originally immigrated to San Francisco, but moved to Georgia in the 1910’s and opened a small grocery store. In those days, if you were Chinese, you had two options to make a living in the South — open a laundry or a grocery store. My father was the youngest of six children and was born in the back room of that store where the family lived.
I am sure that my grandparents never dreamed that they would have a granddaughter who is a lawyer much less a judge. And although they did not know the language or the culture, they instilled in their children a love of this country and a service mindset. I am proud that my father and uncle are veterans who did their part to protect our freedom and way of life.
That’s my father’s side of the family – the Wongs from Augusta. But I also want to talk about my mother, who emigrated from Hong Kong to marry my dad. As a result, Chinese was my first language – that is what we primarily spoke at home before my siblings and I went to school.
One of my most distinct memories as a child was going into a courtroom and watching my mother be naturalized as an American citizen. I can remember my sister and me in our best dresses, standing with my father and watching my mother take her oath of allegiance to the United States. That was a proud day for my mother and for the rest of my family.
Growing up in an Asian American family in the Deep South, there just were not too many people outside of my family who looked like me, spoke like me, or ate the same kinds of foods at home. It used to be when I was a teenager that I wanted to cover up all of those differences and blend in. But as I have grown older, I have learned to embrace those differences because that is what makes our country so great.
I want to share with you that I never aspired to be a judge. I practiced for many years with a law firm in Atlanta where I expected to be for my entire career. But some judicial positions came open in my local jurisdiction. I almost did not apply. I was comfortable with my law practice and frankly I knew that even if I got the appointment, I would then have to run for election to keep my seat. I was fearful about facing the rigors of campaigning each election cycle. So after about a week of soul-searching, I had all but decided not to apply.
But I changed my mind one night as I was looking at my young children. I thought about what I wanted to tell them twenty years from now, about seizing opportunities and about doing what I could to serve the community where they will be growing up. So I applied for the judgeship and was appointed initially to the trial court and later to the Court of Appeals.
As a judge, I have taken an oath to uphold the Constitution. The Constitution ensures that we are a nation of laws, but it begins with the simple words, “We, the people.” Therefore, we must remember that key to the concept that we are a nation of laws is the notion of equality — the belief that “all men are created equal.” No one is above the law, and no one is so low that they cannot avail themselves of the law’s protection.
We must always remind our children that the rights and privileges guaranteed by the Constitution are there for us all. Without them, I would not be in the position that I am in today. The Constitution gives everyone an opportunity to fulfill their potential, even for someone like me who came from a family of immigrants because by protecting the rights that the Declaration of Independence declares to be God-given, the Constitution provides each of us the freedom and opportunity to pursue our own destiny. I am honored to serve as the first Asian American on our Court of Appeals and as the first Asian American to be elected to statewide office in Georgia.