By Wendy Carlson
Throughout her time at Hotchkiss and in her professional career, Sumi Lee ’02 has focused on using her skills for the greater good. Community service has been both her priority and passion. So she was elated last February when she learned she was named the head of judicial diversity outreach in Colorado, a first-of-its kind position created by the Colorado General Assembly in 2019.
The effort toward judicial diversity has been underway in Colorado’s courts and the broader legal community for years, says Lee. “But up until now, it was being done mostly by attorneys and judges who were volunteering their time individually and through committee work. This program helps create a focal point for the collective effort,” she explains.
Her ultimate goal is to have courthouses and the bench reflect the community they serve. One major disparity is that there are fewer than 10 percent of Hispanic and Latino judges on the state bench, in a state that has more than 20 percent Hispanic and Latino population. Black, Asian American, Native American, and women judges are also underrepresented on the bench. “There was only one Black judge in the entire state at the end of 2018, and that created a real concern for the future of judicial diversity in Colorado and led to conversations with the state legislature that created this position,” Lee says.
More Native American judges are especially needed, particularly in the southwestern corner of Colorado — where Native Americans make up more than seven percent of the population but don’t hold any judicial offices.
Born in Korea, Lee grew up in Colorado and entered Hotchkiss as a lower mid in 1999. Former science instructor Joseph Merrill, then her chemistry teacher and the faculty advisor for Habitat for Humanity (HFH), played a role in piquing her interest in community service. For all three years at Hotchkiss, she was involved in HFH. She traveled to Georgia and Florida to build homes during spring breaks as part of a Hotchkiss contingent that participated in HFH’s Collegiate Challenge.
Those kinds of experiences would prove instrumental in steering the course of her law career, even though at Hotchkiss, she was not focused on a legal track. Instead, she deepened her love for reading and writing, which inspired her to double-major in English and Government at Georgetown.
“I was one of those people who really enjoyed writing Teagle essays,” she says wryly.
Hotchkiss also provided high-quality instruction that laid the foundation for critical thinking and analysis, which, she says, is required for a complex issue such as improving judicial diversity in a state that lacks a strong pipeline of next-generation attorneys in rural areas, known as a “law desert” issue.
At the time, her parents were a little disappointed that she did not receive any academic prizes at graduation, though she did receive a community service award, which meant a great deal to her. “In many ways,” she says, “the work I do now is an extension of the commitment to community building that I exhibited during my time at Hotchkiss.”
Lee graduated from Georgetown University and New York Law School before moving back to Colorado for her clerkship. There, she was also part of the judicial branch’s inaugural class of “Sherlocks,” or self-represented litigant coordinators, and later worked as a trust and estate attorney in the private sector.
In her new role, she is taking a data-driven approach to increase public knowledge and engagement with the judicial selection process and to create programs to encourage the next generation of attorneys and judges to consider a career on the bench, she says.Lee is working with the Center for Legal Inclusiveness, a national organization based in Denver, on its Bench Dream Team, a group of volunteer justices, judges, and others who facilitate mentorship and educational programs to encourage diversity on the bench.
“I would love to get to a point where no matter who you are or where you live in the state, you can find inspiration in the stories of the paths different judges took to the bench, where you can connect to a local network of attorneys and judges to study law and access resources when you decide to apply to the bench,” Lee says.
Eliminating barriers long before an attorney is ready to apply for a judicial position is a crucial step toward increasing diversity on the bench, according to Lee. Conversations with law students, college, and high school students should start well before students begin their legal career so that they have the resources to make their dreams of becoming a judge a reality.
As a law student, Lee was a judicial extern for a number of judges and after graduation was a law clerk. “Those experiences were critical in shaping my view of the judiciary and learning what judges do on a day-to-day basis,” Lee says.
The national focus on racial inequity has only strengthened her resolve.
“I have been reflecting about my role in the context of the recent events, which have reaffirmed why the work of improving diversity on the bench is so important — that having proper representation at every level of the legal system is an important part of addressing the inequities of the justice system.”