YOU BE THE JUDGE
CHELSEA MALONE, J.
This series explores what it means to be a judge or justice at various levels of the state court system. Authors share their personal journey to the bench and help others navigate their way to a judgeship.
The idea of working as a judge first crossed my mind in fifth grade, during a mock trial exercise. At the time, it didn’t seem possible, because when I closed my eyes and imagined a judge, I could only see an older white man in a black robe. Not anymore.
This article is about my path to becoming the first Asian woman selected as a judge for any county court or state district court in Colorado. It is about seizing the opportunities of an American life, including education. And it is about how my experience as a Korean child raised on the Crow Indian Reservation impacts me as a judge. I’ll describe how I navigated the judicial nomination process, unsuccessfully and successfully, and what it is like to preside over Denver County Court’s civil protection order docket.
One Girl, Three Cultures
My journey to the Denver County Court bench began in Seoul, South Korea. When I was 3 months old, my life took the most fortunate turn when my mom, a U.S. Army nurse stationed at the Yongsan military base in Seoul, adopted me. Two years later, we moved from Korea to Crow Agency, Montana (the capital of the Apsáalooke Nation1 ), where my mom was employed under the Indian Health Service. The Crow Reservation is home to close to 10,000 Apsáalooke people. Most reside in one of six rural districts separated by miles of country roads, rivers, open range, farmland, and mountains. For me, the reservation was a vast and open playground. I ran through alfalfa fields, swam in creeks, fished the Big Horn River, and climbed apple trees, long black braids trailing behind me. My earliest memories are of attending preschool in an old trailer home. We ate commodity food, spoke in the Crow language, and learned traditional songs and games.
When I was 3 years old, my mother met my father, a Crow tribal member and game warden. In addition to my mother’s family in Colorado, we became members of my father’s large extended clan family. When I was 4, our family welcomed my little sister Wendy, my childhood companion. Although my sister and I were raised with the same cultural views, I noticed early on that we were treated very differently from one another, especially of the reservation, simply because of our ethnicities.
As a child, I straddled Crow and mainstream cultures. I tried to embrace my Korean heritage, despite having no Korean role models or any proximity to Korean culture. I attended pow wows, played Mario Brothers on my Nintendo, and made yaki mandu (Korean dumplings). I experienced the richness of the Crow culture and tradition, but I also witnessed the adverse effects of poverty and cultural assimilation.
A Lawyer Emerges
In high school, I found my niche in team debate, which provided my first sense of being in a courtroom. After high school, I attended the University of Wyoming on a violin scholarship and studied psychology. Upon graduating, I relocated to Denver, where I lived with my childhood heroes, my mother’s parents. Gran and Bop taught me values learned from surviving the Great Depression: appreciation of family...