Transgender judge breaks barriers
by Matthew S. Bajko
Twenty-one years ago Victoria Kolakowski did what most law school graduates do, she applied to take her bar exam. But the Louisiana State Bar Association rejected her application.
"I was initially denied because they said I was not of a sound mind," said Kolakowski, who received a joint Juris Doctor (law) degree and Master of Public Administration from Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge.
The problem, in the eyes of the legal group, was that she had listed herself as a transsexual in explaining why she had changed her legal name. Kolakowski appealed the decision to the Louisiana State Court, which unanimously voted to allow her to take the exam.
She passed and went into solo practice, moved to the Bay Area to practice patent law, was hired as an administrative law judge, and last week, became the first transgender person to be elected a judge by winning her race for a seat on the Alameda County Superior Court.
"My first victory after law school was to take the bar exam, so this has been quite a journey," Kolakowski told the Bay Area Reporter in an interview this week. "To go from that point of suspicions about whether I was mentally stable enough to be an attorney to a majority of people look at my experience over my career to say I am qualified to be a judge that is a very positive statement for our community."
According to the latest unofficial returns from the Alameda County Registrar of Voters, Kolakowski now has 7,392 more votes than her opponent, Alameda County Deputy District Attorney John Creighton, for the superior court's vacant office #9. While there are upwards of 30,000 ballots remaining to be counted, Kolakowski has what appears to be an insurmountable lead.
"Yes, I now feel comfortable saying I won this and I am very happy and deeply honored," said Kolakowski, 49, who is married to B.A.R. news editor Cynthia Laird.
LGBT groups such as Equality California and the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund had made electing Kolakowski a top priority in last week's elections. For the transgender community, whose interactions with the justice system oftentimes are negative experiences, it is a particularly significant win.
"Vicky's win is just incredibly historic for us as an LGBT community. She is the first out transgender trial judge in the United States," said Transgender Law Center Executive Director Masen Davis. "The fact she won shows we are at a place where people can judge someone by what they bring to the table as entire people as professionals."
While Kolakowski didn't hide her transgender status, she focused more on her professional experience out on the campaign trail. Her win is proof that what mattered more to voters was her legal career and not her personal story, said Davis.
"She was out about her transgender identity but was equally focused on her credentials as a judge," said Davis, adding that he will miss having Kolakowski co-chair his agency's board. "I love that now young LGBT people can look to people like Vicky and know they have a possibility of becoming a judge and becoming a professional who is respected in a community while also being true to themselves."
In 2008 when she first ran for judge, Kolakowski was seen more as a transgender activist than as a qualified judicial candidate. This time out she focused more on wanting to make the courts accessible and bring a different perspective other than as a prosecutor to the bench.
"Two years ago most of the media attention on the race was calling me a transgender activist. The words 'activist' and 'judge' in the same sentence can be toxic," said Kolakowski, who is also an ordained minister in the LGBT-focused Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches. "I emphasized my experience as an administrative law judge and attorney. I wasn't just running as a novelty candidate. I have real experience relevant to the job."
Kolakowski's win has attracted local and worldwide attention, from headlines on international news sites to residents of 77 different countries logging onto her campaign website. She has been invited to address several Bay Area groups to discuss her race, including the Thelton E. Henderson Center for Social Justice at the UC Berkeley Law School and the Eastern Alameda County Bar Association.
Sometime before or on January 4, Kolakowski expects to be sworn into office and is planning to have a public celebration. Already several judges have called to welcome her to the bench.
"I am really looking forward to getting started and working with my new colleagues," she said.