G. Michael Witte, executive director of the Indiana Supreme Court Disciplinary Commission, easily recalls the day in 1982 when he donned a robe as the only Asian-American judge in the state of Indiana. At that time, he didn’t know of any other Asian legal professionals at all in Indiana, among either judges or attorneys.
The image of Witte standing as the lone Hoosier Asian-American jurist 35 years ago contrasted starkly with the crowd he addressed Thursday, when the Indiana Chapter of the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association hosted its inaugural banquet. The banquet, held at Barnes & Thornburg’s Indianapolis office, brought together more than 100 attorneys, most of whom identify as Asian-Americans, from around the state to celebrate unity and diversity, two themes the bar association has been championing since its inception in 2014.
Former Indiana Supreme Court Justice Frank Sullivan, the banquet’s keynote speaker, acknowledged that there could be tension between the concepts of unity and diversity — that is, promotion of ethnic diversity seems to contrast with the celebration of an organization based on ethnic “sameness.” But while addressing the crowd during an impassioned speech at the banquet, Sullivan told the Asian-American attorneys that the work of their bar association does not undercut diversity, but rather enables them to share their perspectives with colleagues from different backgrounds.
“We all come from where we come from,” Sullivan said. “It informs who we are. It is a matter for pride and celebration, and it gives us a platform bigger than our individual selves for sharing with the broader world those rich and varied lessons of our lives.”
Witte was celebrated at the banquet as an Asian-American legal professional who had taken advantage of opportunities to share his unique perspective throughout the legal community, earning APABA-IN’s first Trailblazer Award. Judge Lakshmi Reddy, chief judge of the Vigo Superior Court, who presented Witte with the Trailblazer award, praised him for his empowerment of Asian-American attorneys to believe they can have a seat the table when it comes to making decisions that will have a lasting impacting on the legal community.
In order to have that impact, Witte urged the crowd to take advantage of opportunities that will give them a voice in regard to the future of the legal profession, such as serving on a bar or Indiana Supreme Court committee. He also stressed the importance of networking as a way of sharing Asian-American perspectives with a wider audience.
“In order to extend our APA footprint … we have to extend ourselves,” Witte said.
As the inaugural Trailblazer Award winner, Witte will now be the namesake of the G. Michael Witte Trailblazer Award in future years, Reddy said. She noted he will be honored with a similar award from the national APABA organization next month. Melissa Lin, president of the APABA-IN chapter, was also honored at last week’s banquet, taking home the Spirit of Excellence Award from the Indiana chapter.
As a transplant from Arizona who still works remotely for an Arizona law firm, Lin came to Indiana without knowing any other Asian-American attorneys in the Hoosier state. But after attending the 2013 national APABA Lobby Day in Washington, D.C., and realizing she was the only Indiana representative in attendance, Lin was inspired to begin the local chapter to build up a network of Asian-American attorneys who could share in their common experiences.
Today, APABA-IN is in contact with 82 Asian-American attorneys throughout the state, a far cry from its original membership of 12 people, Lin said. As the group continues to grow, Lin said her goal is to begin to cultivate the future of the organization.
“I hope that with our presence here in Indiana that we’ll encourage younger people … to join the legal community and to become judges,” she said.
Focusing on the present, Sullivan reminded the Asian-American attorneys of their “moral imperative” to accept and listen to people from diverse backgrounds, in the same way they want their perspectives as Asian-Americans to be accepted. He also echoed Witte’s call for the APABA-IN members to engage in the legal community and share their perspectives at a time when racial tensions are reaching a fever pitch.
“Look for opportunities to volunteer, to make yourselves available. Our bar associations are always looking for assistance, our nonprofit sector needs leadership, especially from lawyers,” Sullivan said. “And (when) from time to time, opportunities for appointment to judicial office arise, be ready to take your shot.”