As prolonged applause broke out from the crowd, Victoria Kolakowski, the first openly transgender trial judge in the United States, took her oath of office on Tuesday evening at the Asian Cultural Center in downtown Oakland. The special session of the California Superior Court drew more than a hundred people, including some LGBT community leaders and council members from several cities within Alameda County.
“It’s a very powerful and deeply healing experience,” said Shannon Minter, a transgender attorney who has argued in favor of same-sex marriage before the California Supreme Court. “It makes us feel not just that we’re entitled to quality, that we also have something important to offer and to contribute.”
While most court activities are entirely solemn, the event Tuesday kicked off with laughter. Presiding Judge Jon R. Rolefson, while making introductions of the guests, said he didn’t have a complete list until he realized that there was a second page. Kolakowski, on the other hand, failed more than once to repeat the exact words of the oath.
Before winning a seat of the court after facing off against Alameda County Deputy District Attorney John Creighton last November, Kolakowski had practiced law for 21 years as an attorney, and spent the last four years as an administrative law judge with California Public Utilities Commission. “We’re real judges,” said Karen Clopton, the chief administrative law judge on the commission. “We deal with billions of dollars and millions of lives.” Clopton, who presented Kolakowski with a resolution signed by all the commissioners during the ceremony, said that until Kolakowski stood out in the public eye, few people knew what their job is all about.
“To me the real news of my being here tonight is not that a transgender person was elected as a judge, but it was never an issue in my campaign, ” said Kolakowski during her speech following the induction, calling her opponent’s campaign “honorable and respectful.”
“She must have made such a positive impression during the election, ” said California State Senator Ellen Corbett. “Those who ran for the opposition are here tonight to honor her as well.”
However, Kolakowski’s legal career wasn’t always smooth. She said that after graduating from the law school of Louisiana State University, the Louisiana State Bar Association refused to let her take the bar exam because of her transgender identity. She had to appeal the decision to the Louisiana Supreme Court before she was allowed to take the exam, she said.
“When I started as an attorney over two decades ago, I encountered a lot of discomfort, subtle and sometimes invidious discrimination,” said Kolakowski. “I never gave up. I never forget the words Primo Levi said: ‘If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am not for others, then what am I? And if not now, when?’”
Kolakowski said it was the support she later received that carried her to the current position. “Throughout my career, once my colleagues found out that I am transgender, there was always a curiosity for a day or two and then I just became Vicky,” she said.
Kolakowski is married to Cynthia Laird, a news editor at the Bay Area Reporter who enrobed her spouse before she took the oath. (An enrobement, required by law, is a ceremony in which the new judge puts on a judicial robe before being sworn in.) According to Kolakowski’s campaign website, they met in 1994 and got married in 2004 on the first day that San Francisco temporarily allowed same-sex marriages. Those marriages were later invalidated by the California Supreme Court, so the couple married again on the first day of that gay marriages were permitted statewide in 2008 at Oakland City Hall, with former mayor Ron Dellums officiating.
“I’ll be a judge for all of us,” said Kolakowski at the end of her speech, “and that will remain my commitment to you throughout my career on the bench.”