Twin Cities attorney Ngozi Akubuike has her sights set on a new position. After a long multi decade legal career Akubuike is running to be a Ramsey County judge.
Akubuike is no stranger to public service. “I have been an advocate for some time,” she said. The litigator has experience working with both state and county governments as well as providing pro bono legal services to community members.
Akubuike began her legal career in an unusual way. “I came into law by accident,” she said as she described her earlier higher educational journey.
As a young student in Nigeria she had her sights set on studying medicine. She had completed all but one prerequisite before enrolling in medical school. The final required course was a physics exam. On the day of examination, she arrived at the testing location only to find that her name was not on the list of students registered to take the exam.
Confused and panicked she had a driver take her to the official testing center to appeal her position. “I got to the council, [and] there were so many people like me there,” she said. Feeling optimistic she waited to plead her case to the council.
“By the time they got to me …I couldn’t take the exam,” Akubuike said. It was late in the day and the allotted time for testing had passed.
It was then that Akubuike was faced with the decision of taking a gap year and waiting to take the exam to enroll in medical school or to pursue an alternative vocation. She chose the latter.
“My first day in class was logic, it was exciting, that sparked my interest,” Akubuike said, as she described her immediate love of her new academic pursuit. This was the first step in what would become a three decade long legal career that transcended two continents.
After completing her studies, Akubuike practiced law for four years before relocating to the United States.
She immigrated to the United States in September of 1995 after winning a diversity visa lottery. The program which was established in 1993 by the State Department, awards legal status to individuals through a lottery system. The program is open to persons from countries that have historically low immigration rates to the United States.
Upon moving to the U.S., Akubuike who was at the time expecting her first child was unable to find employment before giving birth to her first child. When her baby was two weeks old she found herself homeless and was forced to move into a women’s shelter for temporary housing.
Feeling discouraged and defeated, Akubuike thought about leaving the United States and moving back to Nigeria. As she was planning to leave, she realized that her daughter, an American citizen did not have a passport.
“Shortly after I applied for the passport the federal government shut down” Akubuike said. This was during President Bill Clinton’s administration when lawmakers were unable to reach an agreement on the federal budget. Akubuike decided to stay in the U.S.
She continued to stay in the shelter for a month before moving to transitional housing and finding employment.
Determined to practice law again, Akubuike found employment doing clerical work for local firms before enrolling at Mitchell Hamline School of Law. Akubuike spent her days working and nights taking courses before taking the bar exam.
In 2000 she completed her studies and was offered a position working for the Scott County Attorney’s office as a prosecutor and thus began her career as an attorney in the United States.
During her legal career she has been able to work with the Minnesota Council on Disability to pass laws that enable those with disabilities have greater access to public buildings. The legislation also included language that ensures handicapped parking spots are properly reserved. Akubuike was also part of the legislation that mandates state documents to be available in alternative formats to accommodate individuals with disabilities.
In addition to this Akubuike has also worked with the Minnesota Supreme Court to ensure that the Minnesota justice system has access to outstate criminal records for convicted felons. “I have done a lot in keeping Minnesotans safe.”
Outside of the office Akubuike is passionate about serving her community. She provides pro bono legal advice on immigration law and is an educator on domestic violence.
In 2012 Akubuike opened a food shelf that serves the Ramsey County population. This move was inspired by her lived experience with food insecurity. “I was once hungry,” Akubuike said. “I was too ashamed to walk down to the welfare office to ask for help.”
The food shelf allows individuals to choose their own food. It provides the recipients the freedom and dignity to select their own items. During the Christmas season Akubuike teams up with other shelters to provide jackets to the homeless community.
Akubuike is also passionate about mental health. Upon completing her Masters in Public Administration from the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, she began to set up community workshops on mental health. She works to help communities understand mental health and guide them to resources where they can get professional help.
“There’s no reason to be ashamed in this,” she said, citing the stigma that revolves around mental health particularly in minority populations. Akubuike also works to aid individuals with mental health issues who have been victims of crime.
Akubuike cites her experience working in mental health as a distinguishing factor in her candidacy for the judicial position. “I want to bring that experience to the bench,” she said.
Akubuike points out that her unique life experience also enables her to have a different perspective on the issues affecting Ramsey County. “You can’t find many judges that have been homeless,” she said.
“When someone comes before my court, they are coming before somebody who knows what it is to lack and still be able to hold their head high, you’re coming before somebody who understands mental health issues,” Akubuike said.
“I believe it is time to transition from being an advocate to a neutral auditor.”
Ramsey County consists of seven cities around the Saint Paul metropolitan area and surrounding suburbs. The main duties of a county judge include interpreting state and local law, handing out penalties to those convicted of crimes, and providing a rule on civil disputes.
There are twelve Ramsey County judges with Judge Leonardo Castro the only person of color. The terms of five of the judges will expire on January 2021 according to mncourts.gov. One of these five seats is what Akubuike will be filling if she prevails in the November general election which is expected to see a high voter turnout as it is a presidential election year.
Ngozi Akubuike’s website is at ngoziakubuike4judge.org.