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Details | State of Illinois Office of the Illinois Courts

Celebrating Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month with Justice Rena Van Tine


This May, we’re recognizing diverse voices in the judiciary to uplift and inspire others in the community. The following features Illinois Appellate Court Justice Rena Van Tine and her thoughts on diversity, Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month, and more.

What motivated you to pursue law, and eventually become a judge?

I have always respected the many judges whom I appeared before as a young lawyer. At the heart of the role is the pursuit of fair and equal justice for all. I love how judges strive to apply the law impartially so that legal disputes can be resolved fairly. I thought it was important to make a significant difference in people’s lives and on society. I derive a lot of satisfaction in serving the public as a judge. We contribute to maintaining law and order, protecting individual rights, and upholding the constitution free from political and personal pressures. I enjoy helping people in this unique way. As an Appellate Court Justice, I also enjoy the intellectual challenge of researching and writing on a wide variety of cases.

When you reflect on your education and career, what was it like to become the first female South Asian judge in the United States?

I am fortunate to have enjoyed several “firsts” in my career. My transition to the bench 23 years ago probably had the biggest impact on the community. Unlike presently, in 2001 Illinois did not have any Asian American aldermen, congressmen, state senators or state representatives. Judge Lynne Kawamoto was the first Asian American on the bench in Illinois. When I became an associate Judge in Cook County, she and Judge Sandra Otaka (deceased) were the only other judges in Cook County. I am the immediate past President of the Asian American Judges’ Association which now I am proud to say now has 39 judicial members from our state. I am happy and relieved to have an increasing number of AAPI judges and other elected officials who bring the perspectives of various Asian American communities to their respective positions.

Why is diversity important on the bench?

It is important to have judges from various racial, ethnic, gender, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic backgrounds on the bench. Different life experiences and perspectives bring enhanced decision-making skills to the table. This is also important on the appellate court. I appreciate the diversity of thought from all my co-panelists as our collective work on cases can lead to more nuanced and comprehensive discussions, analyses, and decisions. Moreover, a diverse bench is more likely to be culturally sensitive and aware of the nuances involving customs and traditions of various groups. This sensitivity can improve the quality of justice delivered by providing contextually appropriate wording in our opinions. Diversity on the bench is crucial for ensuring that the judiciary is fair, representative, culturally sensitive, and capable of making decisions that maintain the public’s trust in our judicial system.

Why do you think it’s important to recognize Asian American Pacific Islander heritage, not just this month, but every day?

Embedding daily respect, recognition and appreciation for our community will ultimately help us and other communities stand against racism and inequality. The Asian American community is far from monolithic. There are at least 17 vastly different communities that comprise the AAPI community. Continuous education and recognition provide a more realistic understanding of the diverse cultures, histories, and contributions of the AAPI communities. This can lead to a better appreciation and respect for cultural differences promoting harmony and respect across many different communities. Regular acknowledgment helps challenge and dismantle common stereotypes and misconceptions about the AAPI communities. Together, we can combat the “model minority” myth and other harmful stereotypes that can cover up the real experiences and challenges faced by our community. The invisibility that many Asian Americans experience in their daily lives can be lifted with a daily focus on achievements as well as areas where we very much need assistance.

What advice do you have for young people in law school and at the start of their careers?

Stay open to opportunities. While it’s great to set goals, don’t be afraid to jump into something nobody has ever done before, even if it diverges from your previously set plan. Each experience you will have will contribute to your growth. Every case, client, interaction, and professional relationship will teach you something. Learn and grow. Your most valuable asset is your reputation. Cherish and protect it. The law is an interesting, rewarding, and demanding profession. Seek out friends and mentors through any of the multitude of bar associations and professional groups. Stay involved because our profession is highly network-driven. Your next job, mentor or client will likely come from the networks that you have successfully developed. Assess what you are drawn to and develop your expertise in the area that you are the most passionate about.