John M. Tran, longtime Northern Virginia lawyer and resident, has been named the first Asian-American judge in Virginia history. (DiMuroGinsberg)

McLean resident John M. Tran, a former federal and Alexandria city prosecutor, was elected early Thursday to the Fairfax County Circuit Court by the Virginia General Assembly. Tran, remarkably, will become the first Asian-American ever to serve as a judge in the Commonwealth of Virginia.

Tran, 53, was born in Vietnam and immigrated to this area with his family in 1970. It is believed that he is the first Vietnamese-American judge in the Washington area.

“This has always been true of Virginia,” Tran said. “The opportunities are there regardless of where you come from. It is a privilege to have been given this opportunity by the General Assembly.”

U.S. District Judge Gerald Bruce Lee tried cases against Tran in private practice in Alexandria, then supervised his cases as a judge. “It’s a great day for the Commonwealth of Virginia,” said Lee, who was a Fairfax circuit judge for six years before immigrating to the fed bench in 1998. “John’s an excellent lawyer who’s given much of his time to our community, in the bar association and in pro bono work. Today is a huge step forward for our judiciary and for fairness.”

Tran, the son of a South Vietnamese diplomat, had spent time between the United States and South Vietnam in the early 1970s, and was stranded here when Saigon fell in 1975. He lived in Arlington and graduated from Yorktown High School in 1977. He earned his undergraduate and law degrees from George Washington University.

After law school, Tran went into private practice for several years, then joined the Alexandria commonwealth’s attorney’s office in 1988. While there, he also served as a special assistant U.S. attorney in the federal courts in Alexandria.

Tran returned to pivate practice in 1993, started a small firm in Alexandria, and later joined the firm headed by veteran Alexandria attorneys Ben DiMuro and Nina Ginsberg. He defended federal criminal white-collar cases and handled complex civil business litigation and employment law cases, so he brings a wide range of experience to the Fairfax bench.

“I’m very very pleased,” said Sharon Bulova, chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, noting that “our largest minority population in this county is Asian.” Fairfax’s population is about 18 percent of Asian descent.

In 2008, he was the first Asian-American substitute judge ever appointed in Fairfax County, to hear general district and juvenile court cases. The only other Asian sub judges in Virginia, Michael HuYoung of Richmond and Su Young Min of Arlington, joined Tran at the legislative hearing where he was interviewed prior to his election by the entire General Assembly.

It’s almost unbelievable that the first full-time Asian-American judge is only now being seated, in 2013, and then a bit sad. About six percent of Virginia residents are of Asian descent, and about five percent nationwide, according to census figures. But Tran is a past president of the Asian Pacific Bar Association of Virginia, Lee is also a member, and several other knowledgable Virginia legal mavens all agreed that Tran appears to be the first.

Lee said that Tran, by applying for a judgeship, “decided to seek to make a difference. It was not easy,” because the legislature bypassed him twice. “I understand the journey, it took me three tries before I was elected to Circuit Court, so I understand the perserverance it takes to pursue these opportunities....I am confident that he will be a very capable judge who will make a difference inside and outside the courtroom.”

Tran said he “will do my very best to continue to advance the concept of justice and ensure equal access to the law for everyone, regardless of race, ethnicity, or class.” And then, in a diplomatic nod to all his NoVa roots, he added, “I have never forgotten that I benefited from the dedicated teachers of the Arlington County public school system, the enlightened work environment of the city of Alexandria and the inspirational community leaders that have visited my home in Fairfax County.”

He is married, with one daughter. He will start July 1.