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“Surreal” is the word Judge Jacqueline Regis uses to describe her journey from Haiti to Minnesota District Court judge. Sitting in her new chambers, Judge Regis has a hard time believing her own life’s path has led her to become one of Minnesota’s newest members of the bench.
Surreal as it may seem to Judge Regis, it is no mystery that such an accomplished attorney, advocate, and author was appointed by Gov. Mark Dayton to the bench. Her tireless advocacy and notable career is worth great applause but what is perhaps most inspiring is her own story of how she came from poverty-torn Haiti to become a successful corporate attorney, and now district court judge.
Judge Regis was born in Haiti to an independently minded mother living in a traditional Haitian family. The women in Regis’s family faced almost daily discrimination by the society they lived in and at the hands of their own male family members. They were expected to raise the children and care for the home and rarely allowed to seek their own interests and passions. Yet, somewhere in the difficult and oppressive climate of her childhood, Judge Regis found inspiration in the strength and endurance her mother showed in the face of adversity.
Despite her mother’s strength and commitment to a better life, it was still unthinkable in her family that a woman could become a lawyer. Some of Judge Regis’s own family members were lawyers but they laughed at her nonetheless, when she declared to them, at age 12, that one day, she too would be an attorney. Their ridiculing did not dissuade her, and she admits now that she has instinctively always known that her “crazy idea” of becoming a lawyer would one day come true.
The schools in Haiti were, until recently, modeled after their French counterparts. As a young girl, Judge Regis spent most of her early education learning French literature, French history, and French philosophy. It was this exposure which would lead to her earning a college degree in French literature and exploring the existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre and the literary genius of Gustave Flaubert.
Accompanied by her mother, Judge Regis arrived in the United States at the age of 17 and fell immediately in love with this country’s laws. Coming from the chaotic streets of Haiti, Judge Regis was amazed to see individual citizens waiting in lines and taking turns. In her American high school, she became fascinated with American history and the prominent role the Constitution has played in our society. Despite not being able to speak English when she arrived, Judge Regis identified with the great respect American citizens have for the law that governs them. Born to a country under totalitarian regime, Judge Regis saw the American legal system as a way to bring about peace and social change.
Upon graduation from high school, Judge Regis moved to Illinois for her undergraduate studies. Unable to afford flight tickets home, Judge Regis often found herself hanging out at the college over school holidays. During the summer months, she would return to Connecticut, taking courses at local colleges and earning enough credits to allow her to complete college in a mere three years. After she graduated from college, Judge Regis returned to the East Coast to study law at Suffolk University Law School in Boston. It was in Boston where she began her legal career.
She graduated from law school in 1980 and immediately began clerking for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Superior Court. In 1981, she became a staff attorney and hearing officer for the Massachusetts Labor Relations Commission.
Trading Massachusetts for Minnesota, she worked as assistant attorney for the Office of the Minnesota Attorney General. Representing the State of Minnesota, Judge Regis served as lead counsel in all phases of civil litigation ranging from eminent domain cases to psychopathic personality commitment proceedings. During this time, she was also an adjunct professor at William Mitchell College of Law. In 1996, she left the Attorney General’s Office to work for St. Paul Travelers Insurance Companies as second vice president and senior corporate counsel. After nine years, Judge Regis joined UnitedHealth Group, Inc., where she served for two years as the director of ethics and integrity and, in 2007, became senior associate general counsel of Medicare and retirement. As senior associate general counsel, Judge Regis was responsible for providing legal service and guidance on a range of issues including contract review, federal regulations, distribution matters, and administrative proceedings.
In addition to her diverse legal career, Judge Regis has dedicated a majority of her life to mentoring young women and encouraging them to seek fulfilling and meaningful lives. She remains a vigorous advocate for women and young girls and has worked with a wide variety of Minnesota organizations to bring awareness about issues affecting women today. From 2000 to 2001, Judge Regis was president of the Minnesota Women Lawyers (MWL). During her tenure as president, she helped to recruit Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor to Minnesota to be a keynote speaker at an event held by the MWL in July 2001. During her visit to Minneapolis, Justice O’Connor gave a prominent speech about the death penalty, which later received front-page publicity. Orchestrating this event is one of Judge Regis’s proudest personal accomplishments.
These achievements are awe-inspiring; yet, Judge Regis approaches these with great humility. She is quick to point out that her accomplishments are due in great part to all those who have helped her along the way. Small acts of kindness and compassion have carried her to where she is today, and she leaps at opportunities to pay this forward. While her own life was built on survival, she hopes to inspire a new generation of girls to hold onto their dreams and believe in their self-worth.
In her memoir, “The Daughter of L’arsenal,” Judge Regis chronicles her childhood in Haiti and highlights the practice of “restavek”—the keeping of children as indentured servants. She is an outspoken advocate against childhood servitude and has teamed up with the Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights to educate the public about international trafficking and exploitation of children. As a sitting board member of Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights, Judge Regis has participated in many of the organization’s efforts to advocate on behalf of refugees and immigrants, women, ethnic and religious minorities, children, and other marginalized communities whose rights are at risk.
Proud mother of two accomplished daughters, Judge Regis balances her full life with long walks around our city’s many lakes. For her, the cool autumn air is a welcoming invitation to enjoy a Minnesota evening along the many lakeside paths.
Judge Regis expects all attorneys to treat each other with respect, and she demands that vigorous advocacy be tempered with compassion for all. For Judge Regis, showing great deference for the law and being fastidious in your advocacy is a surefire way to earn her respect. In return, lawyers can be confident that Judge Regis will always treat those who come before her with dignity and respect.