Nancy Waples, a judge on Vermont’s Superior Court with decades of experience in the private and public sectors of the US legal system, was elevated to the Vermont Supreme Court last week, making her the first woman of color to be seated on the state’s highest court.
The daughter of Chinese immigrants, Waples, 61, was confirmed by a unanimous vote of the Vermont State Senate last month and sworn in by Governor Phil Scott on Friday.
“I hope my appointment inspires other people of color to reach outside of their comfort zone and climb the same ladder I climbed, and I will be there to lend my hand,” Waples said in a statement posted by the Vermont Judiciary.
Her elevation to the court marks a significant breakthrough for Vermont, a state whose population is nearly 95 percent white, according to the US Census Bureau. Just an estimated 1.9 percent of Vermont residents are Asian, according to the census.
Her journey, from spending seven days a week working in her parents’ Chinese restaurant in New York state to holding one of five seats on the high court, aligns with a major shift in US culture that has unfolded over the six decades of her life.
Waples’ parents fled the Communist revolution in China, but were unable to immigrate to the US because of exclusion laws, according to the statement. They eventually settled in Toronto, Canada, living there until her father was granted entry to the US when the exclusion laws were replaced by ethnic quotas. Those quotas prevented her mother from joining him, and the family was split up for four years. When she was able to enter the US, the family opened a restaurant just outside of New York City. Waples learned English at age 9.
“My parents traveled halfway around the world with literally nothing more than the clothes on their backs to live in a place that didn’t speak their language, where they didn’t have any friends or family,” she said in the statement. “They came here seeking greater opportunities and longed for a life of dignity and decency. They share my pride in receiving this historic appointment.”
Waples, who lives now in Hinesburg, Vt., began her career as a prosecutor in the Manhattan district attorney’s office, splitting her time there between the appeals bureau and the trials division. She has also spent time as an assistant in the US attorney’s office in Vermont, as well as in the private sector at several firms, according to the statement.
Prior to her appointment to the Vermont Superior Court, she served as the Criminal Justice Act coordinator for the Second Circuit Court of Appeals Vermont district, overseeing a panel of private attorneys assigned to represent the indigent clients in federal cases. She was sworn in to the Superior Court in 2015.
Waples filled the seat previously held by Justice Beth Robinson, who left her position on the court after she was appointed by President Joe Biden to the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.
Scott, the Republican governor who appointed her, said in a statement that he chose Waples for “her story, perspective and skills.”
“As I have said, there are few responsibilities a governor has that are more significant than naming a justice to the Supreme Court,” Scott said in the statement. “Character, competence, commitment, and chemistry are the qualities I seek when deciding on an appointment. There is no doubt Judge Waples possesses these attributes and will excel on the Court.”
The court’s chief justice, Paul Reiber, hailed Waples as highly accomplished in the legal field and well respected among her peers.
“The justices and I are thrilled to have Judge Waples join us,” Reiber said in the statement. “Her accomplishments as a lawyer and a judge are most impressive and have prepared her well for this next phase of her career. She is a highly respected member of the Vermont Judiciary, and she will bring an important perspective to the bench.”