Judge Kelley Tells Her Rare Story in Rising to a Judgeship

When Judge Angel Kelley was asked to be the keynote speaker at Chelsea’s 14th annual Martin Luther King Jr. ceremony, she didn’t know she would be challenged in thinking about her own story in such a deep manner.

Her challenge was to tell those listening – and there were more than 100 in attendance on Monday morning – how she was the embodiment of MLK’s dream that he spoke about so many years ago.

“When I was told it was about me being the dream, I had a little concern and hesitancy,” she said. “That’s because I didn’t have the audacity to believe I embodied Dr. King’s magnanimous dream. I certainly share his dream. My story is not perfect, but I am the dream my parents dreamt.”

That was particularly meaningful as Kelley grew up in a unique environment with two different cultures and parents who worked hard and dreamt their children would succeed – as she has.

Her father grew up in Selma, Alabama, one of nine children growing up in the Jim Crow era south. He picked cotton until he was in his teens and the family followed the Great Migration. He followed his dream north to New York City and worked as a truck driver there on the overnight shift.

Her mother was Japanese, and had married a US Army soldier after World War II and came to the United States. After living in North Carolina with her husband, the marriage didn’t work out and she was divorced.

She moved to New York and worked in supermarkets as a meat packer, where people called her ‘Linda’ instead of her real name of ‘Nieko.’

They lived in New York in a two-bedroom apartment, her and three brothers, above an Irish bar. Her father worked nights and watched the kids in the day. Her mother worked days and watched the kids at night.

They worked hard, she said, to open up a dream for their children.

However, at the age of 38, her father died suddenly. Her mother was left to raise four children on her own, working as a meat packer.

Judge Kelley said her brothers went to the military, but she had a talent for school. Her mother lived until 2013 and was able to see her graduate college, graduate law school and get her Master’s in law. She was able to see her daughter become a lawyer and a public defender, a federal prosecutor and eventually a judge.

“She was still with us when I became a judge,” she said. “I would not be where I am today were it not for my parent’s sacrifice and dreams for me. I accept I am their dream and the result of their pursuit of the American Dream…My story is an unlikely story but it embodies the American Dream. The daughter of a truck driver and a meat wrapper becomes a judge.”

Judge Kelley has been the chief justice of the Plymouth District Court, and earned her degree from Colgate University and Georgetown University Law School.

Prior to her appointment to the Superior Court bench in 2013, Judge Kelley served on the District Court for three and a half years. Before her judicial career, Judge Kelley spent 17 years as a trial attorney and teacher.  She was an Assistant United States Attorney in Boston and a clinical instructor at Harvard Law School.  Previously, she spent much of her legal career in New York as a trial attorney engaged in public interest work in the practice areas of civil and criminal defense.  She was Assistant Chief of the New York Litigation division and senior trial attorney for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.  She also served as trial attorney for the Legal Aid Society in Brooklyn, New York.  

Judge Kelley has taught part-time at institutions including Columbia University, New York University, the Port Authority Police Academy, the New York Civil Rights Coalition, Boston University School of Law, and Suffolk University Law School.  She regularly serves as guest faculty at Harvard Law School’s Trial Advocacy Workshop, Emory Law’s Trial Techniques Program, and the National Institute of Trial Advocacy (NITA).  

Judge Kelley has participated in the China Judicial Exchange teaching the American Jury System, offered an American perspective in Turkey at an international symposium on judicial ethics, and taught police officers, attorneys and judges in Liberia and Tanzania on human trafficking, trial advocacy skills and judicial ethics.

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