When Nhan-Ai Simms was about 5, she looked up during her parents’ U.S. citizenship ceremony in 1985 and saw a man in a black robe, and she thought he must have special, almost magical, powers.
That man was a judge, and he was swearing in her parents and several other people as new citizens of the United States. It was the first time Simms had seen a judge and it left an impression on her.
“It was just the fact that everyone in the room was all of a sudden a U.S. citizen and I remember thinking ‘Well, that man must have done it,’ because he was standing in the front of the room administering the oath to everyone,” she said. “It’s just a moment that stuck out in my mind ... At that point, I thought it would be really neat to be able to be a judge.”
On Monday, it was Simms’ turn to put on a black robe, but this time she was the person taking an oath. She was being sworn in by Superior Court Judge Tadia Whitner as Gwinnett’s newest Juvenile Court judge.
It was a history-making moment for the county.
“She’s certainly the first Vietnamese judge (in Gwinnett County),” Gwinnett County District Attorney Danny Porter said.
Simms immigrated to the United States from Vietnam with her family as an infant in 1980.
She earned her undergraduate degree in business from the College of William & Mary in Virginia, and went on to earn her law degree from Samford University’s Cumberland Law School in Birmingham, Ala., in 2008.
She then did some work as a law clerk, and worked in the judicial circuit based out Athens, before coming to Gwinnett. She and her husband, Athens-Clarke County Police Department Detective Jonathan Simms, have one young son, Lucas.
Simms spent the last six years working in Porter’s office prosecuting juvenile cases. He spoke at her swearing in ceremony and talked about the work she’s done in that role.
“It’s a big loss for our office, but a great addition to the Juvenile Court bench,” Porter said of Simms becoming a judge.
Simms replaces retired Juvenile Court Judge Robert Rodatus on the court’s bench, but she said she won’t begin handling cases for another two weeks.
Simms said she didn’t expect to become a judge when she entered law school. It wasn’t until about two years ago that she decided to pursue the possibility of becoming a judge.
“I think it came pretty organically for me when I started working in Juvenile Court over here, mostly in prosecution, which is the criminal stuff, but sometimes you have dependency, which is child welfare cases, DFCS cases, that roll in to it,” Simms said. “Once I started getting a little taste of that as well, I thought I could broaden my horizons and just realized that sitting on the bench, you would be able to do that.”
Porter said it was a natural progression in Simms’ career for her to become a judge.
“She started out as a law clerk, learned the law there and then learned the trial skills here, so she’s in a perfect position to take advantage of all of that training and she’s going to be a great judge,” the district attorney said. “She really does have the interest of children at heart. That’s what the court is all about, what’s in the best interest of the child.”
Simms said she had worked with all of the judges in Gwinnett’s Juvenile Court, but she found a mentor in Juvenile Court Judge Robert Waller.
She said Waller, who spoke at her swearing in, likely had the biggest impact on her career and her decision to pursue becoming a judge.
“I think he saw something in me that maybe I didn’t see in myself, so when Judge Waller decided, kind of, to be my mentor, he started seriously making me think this is how you’re going to have to do it, this is what you need to do,” Simms said. “I mean (Judge) Rodatus is big shoes to fill, but I would credit Judge Waller with kind of getting me here because he’s the one who pushed me first.”
And now, she’s got her own black robe — just like that judge she saw administering the citizenship oath when she was 5.