This interview captures the oral history of Lillian Y. Lim, Brown University class of 1973 and the first Filipina American Judge in the United States.
Lim begins by talking about her parents’ early lives in the Philippines and shares how they met during World War II. She explains that her two older brothers were born in the Philippines and that she was the first in her family, followed by her younger brother, to be born in the United States. She describes challenges her family faced in California due to racism as well as their difficult financial circumstances, both of which impacted Lim’s future goals.
Lim goes on to remember how she learned about Brown through a seemingly random recruitment letter. She talks about arriving on campus for the first time in the fall of 1969 after taking her first trip in an airplane and being one of a small number of Asian students. She recalls having a challenging first year being so far from home, but finding friendship with coworkers at her student-work position in the Chemistry Department. She also fondly remembers several courses that she was able to take because of the open curriculum. Lim also describes extracurricular activities including anti-Vietnam War protests on and off campus and being a founding member of the Asian American Student Association.
In discussing her life after Brown, Lim also talks about deciding to attend Law School and making her way to Judge of the California Superior Court. She also describes the origins of the Asian American Bar of California, Filipino American Lawyers of San Diego, and Pan Asian Lawyers of San Diego, all of which she co-founded. Lim closes with some advice for Brown students and law students and appreciation for her time at Brown.
Recorded on February 7, 2022 via Zoom
Interviewed by Amanda Knox, Pembroke Center Assistant Archivist
Suggested Chicago style citation: Lim, Lillian. Interview. By Amanda Knox. Pembroke Center Oral History Project, Brown University. February 7, 2022.
Judge Lillian Y. Lim, class of 1973, is a retired Judge of the California Superior Court. She was the first of her family born in the United States. Her mother, Socorro, is from Baliwag, Bulacan in the Philippines where she obtained a sixth grade elementary education. Her father, Alfredo, was from Iloilo Iloilo in the Philippines later immigrating to the United States as a teenager where he worked as a houseboy, chauffeur, and stoop farm laborer, eventually obtaining his GED degree which led to work as a TV repairman and instrument mechanic. Judge Lim’s parents met during World War II when Alfred, as a U.S. Army demolitions expert and part of a racially segregated unit of the U.S. Army, assisted Socorro’s family and others who were local resistance fighters against the Japanese who then occupied the Philippine Islands. Although Lim’s parents had little formal education they were accomplished, articulate and successful in educating their four children at Ivy League Schools, including Brown University, U.S. military academies, and graduate schools. When Alfredo passed away at the age of 107, he was the oldest U.S. combat veteran who had been decorated for valor.
Lim graduated from Berkeley High School in 1969. She was part of the first class at Brown to participate in the “New Curriculum” (now Open Curriculum), fully appreciated the opportunity to participate in a Mode of Thought seminar as a freshman and took advantage of the academic freedom at Brown to shape her own education. She had been offered a Phoebe Hearst Undergraduate Fellowship at U.C. Berkeley, having previously attended the University as a high school student within Berkeley’s College of Chemistry, but fortunately declined that offer without fully understanding how that choice would allow her the freedom to prepare academically to follow a calling more focused on community service. She was at Brown when the University called a campus strike (faculty, staff and students) as part of a nationwide effort expressing opposition to the Vietnam War. While at Brown University, she was a co-founding member of the Asian American Student Association, editor of the first Brown University Asian American Student Newsletter, and participant in the first Group Independent Study focused on the Asian American experience. Her academic advisor was Professor Kau Ying-Mao while Professor James Sakoda sponsored her Group Independent Study. She graduated from Brown University in 1973 with Honors in Political Science. In 1977, Lim graduated from Western State University College of Law in California, first in her Law School class.
She served as a Deputy Attorney General with the California Department of Justice. She co-founded the Asian American Bar of California, Filipino American Lawyers of San Diego, and Pan Asian Lawyers of San Diego. Her cases as a state prosecutor focused on fraud and political corruption. She was appointed to the San Diego Municipal Court in 1986. She later served on the Superior Court and as Justice pro tem on the Court of Appeal. It is believed she was the first Filipina American Judge in the United States. As a Judge, she chaired the Judicial Council’s Subcommittee on Women of Color and the Subcommittee on Racial and Ethnic Fairness. She co-chaired the Judicial Council’s First Statewide Conference for Women of Color in the Courts as well as the first statewide conference on Indian Land bringing together State and Indian leaders within the parallel Court systems. She is a past President of California Asian Pacific American Judges. She earned the honors of San Diego County Bar Association Judge of the Year, California State Assembly Woman of the Year, and National Asian Pacific America Bar Association Trailblazer. Between 2007 and 2012, Lim served on the Chief Justice’s Criminal Strike Force and Civil Task Force helping California Courts settle or try cases. Thereafter, Lim entered private practice as a mediator and arbitrator. During these years Lim helped establish Fred Korematsu Days of Civil Liberties and the Constitution in both California and Hawaii. Now fully retired in Hawaii from work that pays, Lim pursues learning new musical instruments and haphazardly throwing her aging body into new athletic endeavors. She also finds her role as a grandparent to 12 grandchildren delightful.