Don’t be afraid to take calculated risks so you can seize opportunities during your career, and make sure you take time to thank and help others along the way. That’s the main message the Southeast’s first Asian Pacific American state appellate judge gave students at a Columbus private school Wednesday.
Georgia Court of Appeals Judge Carla Wong McMillian, who in 2014 also became the first Asian American to be elected to statewide office in Georgia, visited the Advanced Placement Government class at Calvary Christian School. The teacher, Craig Johnson, invited her because he’s been following her career since he taught her history at Westminster School of Augusta in the late 1980s.
“She was a top student, a very hard worker, sharp, inquisitive and just an academic leader, so it’s not a surprise that she has succeeded in the legal profession,” Johnson, also Calvary’s upper school principal, told the Ledger-Enquirer before McMillian’s presentation. “It’s important for students to have someone they can look to and say, ‘Maybe I can do that.’ It’s inspirational. They get kind of locked into thinking their world is the next week or two versus many things they could be doing in the future.”
McMillian told the 18 students in Johnson’s first-period class the story of how her family succeeded in Augusta.
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“I became a judge not only because I wanted to do that but because of people who’ve helped me and my family along the way,” she said.
The Chinese community in Augusta dates back to the 1870s, when immigrants helped extend the city’s canal, she said.
The Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association of Augusta, established in 1927, welcomed immigrants, conducted a school and celebrated holidays and cultural events while she grew up there. The First Baptist Church of Augusta, which formed a Chinese Sunday school in 1885, also played a significant role in her upbringing, she said.
While many Southern communities prohibited Chinese students from attending school with whites during segregation, McMillian said, Augusta allowed them. A bill proposing to withdraw state funding from public schools if they permitted Asian Americans to attend was abandoned in the Georgia Legislature in 1931, she said, after Chinese families and legislators from Augusta lobbied against it.
During World War II, her aunt Margaret Wong became the first Chinese American woman to earn a medical degree in the Southeast, she said.
McMillian didn’t have any relatives who were lawyers. In fact, she said, the only connection she had with the court system was when, at age 7, she attended the ceremony that made her mother a naturalized citizen.
“I’m sure my grandparents never imagined that they would have a granddaughter who was a lawyer, much less a judge,” she said. “… My parents, just like many other Chinese parents during that time, very much wanted me to be a doctor, just like my Aunt Margaret. But that’s not where my passion was.”
Instead, she majored in history and economics at Duke University and earned her law degree from the University of Georgia. But even McMillian didn’t think she would become a judge.
As a partner in the litigation group of the national law firm Sutherland Asbill & Brennan in Atlanta, she specialized in complex business litigation.
“I enjoyed my clients and I enjoyed my law partners,” she said, “but then something changed.”
In 2010, two of the four circuit judges in Fayette County resigned amid scandal, McMillian said.
“I was really worried about my community,” she said. “I was really worried about the bench.”
So she mulled whether she should apply for the appointment. During a week of soul searching, she hesitated because, if the governor appointed her to fill the unexpired term, she would need to win an election to retain the seat.
“I felt very prepared as a lawyer to do the work of the judge,” she said. “However, I had no preparation and really no desire to run for public office.”
But wondering about the future of her two children, then ages 7 and 3, convinced her.
“I started thinking about what I wanted to do to serve the community where they were going to be growing up,” she said.
McMillian also wanted to model for her children, especially her daughter, the value of taking calculated risks and seizing opportunities. So with the blessing of her husband, she put her name in contention, and then-Gov. Sonny Perdue appointed her to the State Court in Fayette County in 2010. And she indeed won the July 2012 election – by nearly a 2-to-1 margin -- to retain her seat.
The campaign involved a social media blitz and marked “the first time I learned how to tweet something,” McMillian said with a smile.
“I really wouldn’t trade that experience for the world,” she said. “Even though it was a tough time, a challenging time, campaigning gives you great fortitude. It also forces you to take stock of yourself and what you believe in and your goals, and you have to be able to articulate that in a couple minutes to a group of people.”
McMillian didn’t come close to fulfilling her four-year term – because she pursued another opportunity.
Two months after she was elected, Judge Harris Adams announced his retirement from the Georgia Court of Appeals. Colleagues encouraged McMillian to apply for the appointment. She initially declined, but a mentor convinced her to go for it, and Gov. Nathan Deal appointed her in January 2013.
In the 2014 election, McMillian won her unopposed race. Her six-year term runs through 2020.
“If you take anything away from my family story, I hope it’s the importance of reaching out to people – people in your community who may not look like you, who may speak a different language or who may act differently,” she said. “The help that my family and I got along the way was critical, I think, to bring me to this position here today.
“I’m extremely grateful for all the people in the CCBA and the First Baptist Church and everyone else in the Augusta community who helped us, and I hope you will pass along your talents and give your help wherever you can to others. I encourage you to do that, whatever your circumstances may be.”
Calvary senior Taylor White, 17, seeks a career in marketing or business management, not the law, but she still was inspired by the judge’s presentation.
“It was interesting to learn how she came all the way from a Chinese home in Augusta to the Court of Appeals,” Taylor told the L-E. “I like how she wanted to help her community. … In marketing, with the Lord, I could put that into my career somehow, helping others who couldn’t afford it.”
McMillian told the L-E in an interview before her presentation that she chose Johnson as her STAR teacher at Westminster. STAR (Student Teacher Achievement Recognition) honors the senior with the highest SAT score at each high school in the state, and each of those students select an influential teacher to be recognized with them.
“Mr. Johnson always has had an engaging way of teaching,” she said, “but he also cared about the students.”