One day this December, 42-year-old attorney Meng Lim will pack up his two kids and a freshly pressed black robe.
Sixty miles later, at the state Capitol, Lim will be sworn in as the first Cambodian-American of Chinese extraction ever to sit on a Superior Court bench in Georgia.
The election of a survivor of Cambodian genocide to an open seat in the Tallapoosa Judicial Circuit in west Georgia – a rural, two-county affair where Asian-Americans make up precisely .3 percent of the voting population – is perhaps the most remarkable, yet untold story to come out of last month’s runoff contests.
The Haralson County attorney won 62 percent of the vote in his July 22 runoff against Chuck Morris, a juvenile court judge from neighboring Polk County who had the support – financial and otherwise — of most of the area’s legal community.
Lim built his campaign largely on personal loans and the enthusiasm of a community that took him in as a 9-year-old boy who spoke no English and had never seen the inside of a classroom.
“I had really good, strong supporters who are passionate about me, and that was great,” said Lim, in an interview at his street-level office in slumbering, downtown Tallapoosa.
While Lim isn’t the first Asian-American elected to the bench in Georgia, he might be considered the state’s first Facebook judge. In a community where local newspapers come out once a week or not at all, Lim made extensive use of the Internet to offer up a remarkable, warts-and-all biography.
“He did a helluva job to get elected – the way he went about it. I look forward to seeing what he does in the position,” said Superior Court Judge Richard Sutton of Cedartown, whose pending retirement set off the first contest for an open judicial seat the circuit has seen in more than 30 years. (Departing judges usually do so mid-term, giving the governor a valuable appointment.)
Lim was born in Cambodia shortly before the 1975 takeover by the communist Khmer Rouge. The subsequent holocaust would claim 2 million lives.
His father was a school principal and thus a marked man in a regime that targeted intellectuals for extermination. Lim’s father went on the run, while Meng Lim, two older siblings and his mother were kept in separate concentration camps. An older brother who stayed with their father would die in the Cambodian forests of malaria.
There was no school for Lim – just unending work in the rice fields.
Ultimately, an invasion by Vietnam sent the Khmer Rouge packing. The reunited Lim family walked into Thailand and its refugee camps, where a Jewish organization sponsored the family’s resettlement in College Park.
But the Lims gravitated toward a local Baptist church whose pastor grew up in Haralson County on the Alabama border. With that connection, Lim’s principal-father and teacher-mother, neither of whom spoke a word of English, became custodians at the First Baptist Church of Bremen.
“The very first day I went to school I got into a fight,” Meng Lim remembered.
Small towns are a hard place to break into, even when you look like everyone else. But once they take you in, they don’t let go.
It was nearly a year before Lim spoke a complete sentence in English. A new Walmart had just opened nearby – and became a tool for building a vocabulary. “My teachers would take me, on their time — either after school or sometimes on a Saturday, and we would go to the store and they would point out different things and ask me to repeat it after them,” Lim said.
We often focus on the romance of walking stone-cold into a new country, but it is a soul-wrenching thing. The Lim family shattered under the pressure, and Lim became the foster child of his high school art teacher and his wife. Lim’s children, Elizabeth, 9, and Nicholas, 4, are named after them.
Meng Lim was a state wrestling champ and valedictorian of his Bremen High School graduating class. A scholarship sent him to Emory University, where he earned a degree in history and learned that he had developed an unusual Southern-Chinese accent. Another scholarship paved his way through Mercer Law School.
It was here that Lim’s journey took a more standard turn. After a year of clerking for local judges, Lim was hired by the law firm of House Speaker Tom Murphy.
“My Dad had an eye on Meng when he clerked. Dad had great expectations — he saw the potential in him. Meng’s a fearless worker,” said Mike Murphy, son of the late House speaker – and now a superior court judge who will be Lim’s partner on the Tallapoosa bench. “Talk about the great American success story.”
Mike Murphy’s wife, incidentally, was Lim’s debate coach in high school. It’s a tight community.
Lim now has his own private practice. He is the attorney for the Haralson County Commission, and does family law on the side. He is divorced, which he does not hide – that’s not possible in a small town.
On the other hand, in small communities, your fight often becomes that of your neighbors. Two years ago, Lim’s brother, 47-year-old Lymeng Lim, was killed in a car wreck. He was one of the few members of the U.S. Navy to have also carried an AK-47 for the Khmer Rouge. As a child-soldier — not by choice.
It took two years – just after the May 20 primary — for police to cite Sabrina Townes, 32, of Lawrenceville, for vehicular homicide. The arrest came only after she was involved in a second fatal accident.
Meng Lim made his crusade for justice part of his campaign for judge. A mailer in the runoff campaign featured a picture of Lim’s older brother, and this passage:
“I’m running for Superior Court Judge in the Tallapoosa Circuit because I believe that our community should be strong, [and] our judicial system fair and swift…Serving as your Superior Court Judge isn’t going to bring my brother back but it will help carry on his legacy of service, sacrifice, and courage.”
Lim’s victory party was held at a Mexican restaurant in downtown Tallapoosa. Afterwards, he drove to Atlanta – where his 93-year-old father lives in a Chinese-speaking enclave. (His mother still lives in Haralson County.)
“He immediately gave me as big a bear hug as he could muster. In all my life, I don’t recall ever receiving such an embrace from my father,” Lim wrote.
On Facebook, of course, for all his neighbors to see.