For Justice Richelle Wahi ’03, equity work is the path to real justice – News and Events

Judge Richelle Wahi ’03

When 2003 Judge Richelle Wahi presides over the Dakota County Courthouse in Hastings, Minnesota, she explains to the parties why she doesn’t always make eye contact. “It’s important that people feel seen and heard.”

Wahi experienced hearing loss later in life, so she reads a court reporter’s real-time transcript on a screen in front of her. The courtroom audio also connects to his hearing aid.

But the pandemic was a time when everyone — not just a select few — needed technological accommodations to attend court.

Wahi and others have realized the benefits of having proceedings online, especially without any public transport connection to the courthouse. “Zoom has dramatically improved access to justice for people in the First Judicial District who had no transportation and saved everyone the time and money to get there” , she said.

Wahi, 46, was tasked with re-establishing and running the family court with a focus on inclusion and access. The significance of such work dates back to Wahi’s childhood in rural southern Minnesota and extends throughout his academic and professional life.

“Being one of the few immigrant families and having grown up in a small town, you are very aware of your differences,” noted Wahi, whose father was from India and mother from a French-speaking part of the Canada. English was rarely spoken at home.

Mitchell Hamline Law, Spring 2022

This article first appeared in the Spring 2022 issue of Mitchell Hamline Law magazine.

Wahi didn’t know what to do after college but was interested in law and accepted William Mitchell. She didn’t know it was the right choice until she met and was mentored by professor and former Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Esther Tomlijanovich ’55.

Tomlijanovich started a group of women’s students, affectionately called “the Coven”, which met regularly for tea and encouragement. “Judge T taught me to never be afraid to ask the hard questions and to keep stepping out of the comfort zone,” Wahi said. “And the Coven showed me that there would always be people to support me.”

After law school, Wahi litigated multi-million dollar cases. But it was a conciliation case worth just $567 – where she volunteered as an arbitrator – that struck a chord with her. “As small as this case may seem, it was important to this person. It became important to me to serve ordinary people. When a vacancy opened up on the bench, Wahi applied and was appointed as a district court judge in 2016.

Wahi’s equity work also includes serving on the Minnesota Judiciary’s Committee for Equality and Justice and chairing the Access and Equity Subcommittee. The work identifies biases within the justice system and recommends changes in processes, procedures and policies.

“This work is close to my heart because we know that there are inequalities within our justice system that need to be recognized, challenged and changed to ensure real justice. It’s my way, it’s my duty.

EVENT: Judge Wahi will present findings and recommendations from a recent Equality and Justice Committee jury race data report at an event with the Hennepin County Bar Association on Wednesday, 18 May at 12:00 p.m. CST. This is an online CLE event; register here.

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