Lesbian named to bench
by Matthew S. Bajko
Vacationing in Tulum, Mexico with her family for the holidays, Berkeley resident Kimberly E. Colwell received an unexpected surprise. Governor Jerry Brown's office called her Christmas Day to inform her she had been selected to fill a judicial vacancy.
Colwell, 54, is believed to be the first out lesbian to be appointed to the Alameda County Superior Court and is only the third out judicial appointment Brown is known to have announced since returning to the governor's office in 2011.
"It was a very nice Christmas present," Colwell told the Bay Area Reporter by phone Thursday, December 27 as she was standing in the warm waters of the Caribbean.
A shareholder and head of the litigation group at Meyers Nave Riback Silver and Wilson since 2002, Colwell applied for a judicial appointment in late 2011. She is filling a vacancy created by the conversion of a court commissioner position on June 27, 2012.
"I am really excited to be an out member of the judiciary. I think the community needs to see itself and I don't know if there are enough gay people who are judges," said Colwell, who earned a Juris Doctorate degree from UC Hastings College of the Law. "I think it is important for people who go into a courtroom that they see themselves up there."
After growing up in the North Hollywood district of the San Fernando Valley, Colwell received a Bachelor of Arts degree from Linfield College.
For nearly 13 years she has been with her wife, filmmaker Deborah Alice Craig, who is working on a project about lesbian health. The couple first married in San Francisco in 2004 and again in 2008 prior to the passage of California's same-sex marriage ban.
According to her bio on her law firm's website, Colwell has conducted more than 75 trials and represented a wide array of clients, from police officers and cities to school districts and private security companies. She also handled cases for the Judicial Council of California, representing judges, appellate court justices, and court employees all over northern California.
She was part of her firm's team that conducted a confidential internal affairs investigation for the Bay Area Rapid Transit District into the officer-involved shooting death of Oscar Grant class=st>in the early morning hours of New Year's Day 2009. The Daily Journal legal paper named Colwell one of the Top 100 Women Litigators that year.
"While I have been a zealous advocate for my clients, I think I am ready to make the switch to be neutral and help people everyday," said Colwell when asked why she wanted to become a judge. "The idea of doing that is very appealing to me. Any judge I have talked to has said it is the best job they have ever had."
Alameda County Superior Court Presiding Judge C. Don Clay administered the oath of office to Colwell Monday, December 31. She is believed to be the second judge to identify as lesbian on the East Bay bench and only the fourth to identify as LGBT.
Judge Victoria Kolakowski, who identifies as a transgender lesbian, and gay Judge Hugh Walker are open about their sexual orientation. A third judge whose identity is not known listed himself as gay on a survey of the court's demographic makeup that was released in early 2012.
Next Monday, January 7 lesbian Judge-elect Tara Flanagan will take her oath of office to become the fifth LGBT person on the Alameda court. She will be assigned to the Hayward Superior Court branch hearing family law cases.
The Oakland-based attorney won an open judicial seat during last June's primary election. According to election law, judges elected to the bench are sworn in on the first Monday after the new year.
In terms of seniority, she will be right behind both Colwell and Berkeley resident Brad Seligman, 61, an attorney Brown also appointed last Thursday to a vacant seat on the Alameda court. (Colwell and Seligman will both earn $178,789 as judges.)
Any disappointment about moving down the list was tempered, said Flanagan, by seeing Brown select her friend Colwell. The two have worked closely as members of the Women Lawyers of Alameda County.
In October Colwell had been elected as president of the professional group, and Flanagan has been serving as vice president. The third and fourth WLAC members to become judges in Alameda in recent years, they will be stepping down from their leadership roles in the group due to joining the bench.
"I honestly couldn't be happier. It is an excellent selection by the governor," said Flanagan. "She is just a smart, great woman and I am just so thrilled."