Nina F. Elgo is used to having a lot of responsibility heaped on her. Before becoming a judge, she worked at the state Attorney General’s Office for 14 years, representing the state in child abuse and neglect cases, and other cases involving children.
"My first assignments entailed representing the Department of Children and Families and the Department of Education because they were combined at that time," said Elgo, reflecting on her first big case, a special education case she followed from the administrative appeal level up to the state Supreme Court.
"I got to argue the case at the Supreme Court, so that was a lot of fun," she said. "That’s one of the great beauties of being in the Attorney General’s Office — you have those opportunities to assume a lot of responsibility fairly early on."
Ever since, Elgo has embraced responsibility, becoming a leader in one of the state’s "affinity" — or ethnic — bar associations even as she’s established herself as a Superior Court judge. For her efforts, the Lawyers Collaborative for Diversity (LCD) has selected Elgo to receive this year’s Edwin Archer Randolph Diversity Award, named after a Yale Law School graduate who in 1880 became Connecticut’s first lawyer of color.
Since the award’s establishment eight years ago, the LCD has sought out candidates who have served as role models and offered a helping hand to legal professionals of color, or female lawyers. Past recipients include U.S. District Judge Alvin W. Thompson, former state Supreme Court Justice Lubbie Harper Jr., Xerox Corp. general counsel Don Liu, and Senior Assistant State’s Attorney Toni Smith-Rosario.
Elgo will receive the award on Thursday, May 9 at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford.
Elgo was raised in Norwich, but her parents were first generation Filipinos. A major milestone in her life occurred at age 10, when she journeyed to the Philippines. Having spent basically her entire life in southeastern Connecticut, it was the first time she had been exposed to her extended family — and to her roots. "I’ll never forget getting off the plane and realizing, wow, everybody looks like me!" she recalled.
Elgo later went to Connecticut College in New London, where her studies included Russian and from which she graduated still "not knowing what I wanted to be." She next attended Georgetown Law School and, after graduation, got a job with the Attorney General’s Office.
Soon, Elgo found herself in court as often as four to five days a week. "Being in court that frequently, you understand the mechanics of a trial," she said. "Seeing how a judge operates [and] what it is they do. Handling volumes of cases, being able to juggle a lot of witnesses, facts and evidence… All of those skills, all of that background [and] experience really helped me a lot when I went on the bench."
Elgo closely observed the judges she appeared before. For example, she recalls that former Superior Court Judge Jonathan E. Silbert "was someone who had superb intellect and an ability to be objective and even-tempered, yet still had a wonderful sense of humor that was carefully measured."
"It’s hard to do," Elgo continued, "because you have to maintain your credibility as a judge all of the time, so to be able to walk that line and do it well was something I admired."
In 2004, Elgo became Connecticut’s first Asian Pacific judge. She initially handled criminal cases, though she’s currently assigned to the civil docket in New Haven Superior Court. Now she, too, has had to walk the line between being a serious judge and an energetic advocate for Asian Pacific lawyers.
Those who know her say she’s successfully balanced the roles. "She is a person of incredible integrity," said solo practitioner Amy Lin Meyerson, founder of the Connecticut Asian Pacific Bar Association (CAPABA) and a former Edwin Archer award winner. "She’s impartial on the bench and has a good judicial presence. And she has exhibited energy and dedication to public service and the community."
Appellate Court Judge Christine E. Keller first encountered Elgo when Keller was a juvenile court judge and Elgo argued cases before her. "I know she has worked very hard," Keller said, "particularly in the area of promoting the growth of participation by Asian Americans in the bar,. She’s really done an extraordinary job."
These days, Elgo serves on CAPABA’s Board of Directors and is a member of the Judicial Council for the National Asian Pacific Bar Association (NAPABA). But much of her outreach is less formal. She makes herself visible at events where she can interact with attorneys of color, or female attorneys, and offer career advice.
She’s also been involved in workshops for undergraduates at the University of Connecticut and Yale. The goal is to encourage young people of all backgrounds to consider a career in the law, and to help them understand there are a variety of options within the legal profession.
Elgo is especially proud of these seminars. After all, she can easily recall what it was like to be in college and to be unsure of what sort of transitions might lie ahead. "A lot of times what makes it interesting being a judge is really understanding what’s going on at all levels," she said. "Self-awareness assists in keeping yourself in check."•
For more information on the Edwin Archer Randolph Diversity Award and the Lawyers Collaborative for Diversity, visit www.lcdiversity.com.