John Zihun Lee, a 54-year-old U.S. District Judge for the Northern District of Illinois whose parents were sent to Germany as miner and nurse as part of a national program to earn foreign money, has been appointed as judge of the Federal Appellate Court. Once Mr. Lee passes the Senate confirmation, he will become the third Korean American tenured federal judge following Herbert Choe (Choe Young-jo) and Lucy Go (Go Hye-ran) of the United States Circuit Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.
The White House announced Wednesday that U.S. President Joe Biden newly appointed five federal judges. The White House said Mr. Lee would be “the first America judge to ever serve on the Seventh Circuit.” Mr. Lee, who was appointed as district judge of the Northern Illinois in 2012, has become a federal appellate judge after 10 years, close to a counterpart of the South Korean High Court of justice.
Judge Lee was born in Aachen, Germany, in 1968, between his father Lee Seon-gu, who had been dispatched from Korea as miner, and his mother Lee Hwa-ja, who served as nurse, as the oldest son of three. Owing to financial difficulties, he was sent to Daejeon, a city in South Korea, when he was three months old to be raised by his grandmother. His parents moved to the U.S. and brought him when he was four in 1972. His father was working late hours as a factory worker, and his mom working around the clock as a nurse, he had to stay at home alone to study.
After earning a bachelor’s degree in Harvard, he graduated from Harvard Law School in 1992 before he was selected as district judge under the Obama administration. During his inauguration ceremony in July 2012, Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois said Lee’s story of arriving in the U.S. at four to become a federal judge speaks volumes about how great America is.
“The time that I spent as a kid in Korea shaped my identity, and it is an invaluable time that has made me who I am now,” Lee said during an interview after he was sworn in, adding he is always grateful wistful about Korea. “As a kid, I saw my parents having trouble deciphering legal issues and documents, and that made me think about the role of law,” he explained. “I always try to be fair and humble. I want to become a judge who treats people fairly and closely listens to them.”