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Transgender woman leads race for judge

in UNITED STATES, 16/06/2010

Victoria Kolakowski, running to become a Superior Court judge in Alameda County, says her legal experience should lead voters to choose her for the bench, not the fact she is transgender, though she acknowledges the symbolic importance of her campaign. Kolakowski would become the country's first openly transgender elected judge.

Victoria Kolakowski, who's running for Alameda Count Superior Court judge in a November runoff election, declares on her campaign Web site that she hopes to make history.

"If I am elected, I would be the first openly LGBT superior court judge elected in Alameda County, the first openly LGBT person elected countywide, and the first transgender trial court judge in the United States," it states.

The question is how much it should matter.

Kolakowski, 48, transitioned from male to female in 1989 during her last year in law school and had sex reassignment surgery in 1991. She has 21 years of legal experience, including stints as a private attorney, corporate attorney and, currently, an administrative law judge.

Mostly symbolic

Kolakowski says her gender is important in symbolism and inspiration for others, but she wants voters to mainly consider her professional experience.

"It's not like I'm going to be elected and be 'the transgender judge,' " she said. "If I'm not going to be able to represent the entire community or have the skills for the job, I don't want people to vote for me."

Her opponent, John Creighton, agreed.

"I think the qualifications for office should be professional ability," said Creighton, a 58-year-old lawyer who has served in the Alameda County district attorney's office for 25 years.

But her gender is nonetheless likely to play a significant role in the campaign. Statewide LGBT organizations see their community as having long been locked out by political appointments, particularly by Republican governors. Kolakowski, they say, represents a rare opportunity for the LGBT community.

"She's going to be the first elected transgender judge in the country," said Geoff Kors, executive director of Equality California, an LGBT advocacy organization that assigned volunteers to call 30,000 of its members to urge them to vote for Kolakowski in last week's primary. "This is one of the Harvey Milk moments, where you can break a glass ceiling and put a transgender judge on the bench."

In the primary, Kolakowski got 67,000 votes, 45 percent of the total, Creighton got 32 percent and a third candidate, Louis Goodman, got 22 percent. Because no one got a majority, a fall runoff is set between Kolakowski and Creighton.

Creighton talks about his long tenure as a deputy district attorney, a position that he says has made him well versed in courthouse procedures and sensitive to all walks of life - including, he said, LGBT people who have been victims in part because of their sexuality.

"I've tried thousands of cases," Creighton said. "I know courtroom procedure. I know the rules of evidence. I can assume the role of judge immediately and act in a competent and efficient and fair way."

Kolakowski touts her experience as an attorney in the public and private sector, and in her current job as an administrative law judge at the California Public Utilities Commission. The PUC regulates the state's electricity and telecommunications industries, among other things.

Some people, including Kolakowski, say judges are far too frequently former prosecutors - particularly when appointed by politicians.

While criminal cases are a "big, important part" of the court system, Kolakowski said, there are other kinds of cases too. Family court, civil cases, probate and small claims are all areas a judge might have to work in.

"I think I have a broader experience than my opponent, who has primarily worked in one area," she said.

Prosecutors' role

But Creighton said prosecutors make excellent judges.

He said prosecutors have a unique role in the courtroom that, among things, requires them to turn over evidence that might help the defense. They must also weigh a number of factors in deciding whether or not to prosecute.

"We don't have a duty to win," he said. "We have a duty to be fair in the interest of justice."

Both candidates come from working-class families and have compelling personal stories.

Creighton was adopted as an infant and raised on an orchard and chicken farm just outside of Campbell. After graduating from high school, he worked as a car mechanic and a roofer before he was drafted into the army and sent to Vietnam, where he served in military intelligence. He attended UC Berkeley on the GI Bill, becoming the first in his family to graduate from college. After working his way through law school at the University of San Francisco, he joined the Alameda County District Attorney's office. He is married, lives in Piedmont and has two daughters, 8 and 11.

Kolakowski was born in Queens, N.Y., and raised in Brooklyn. Her father worked in a cardboard manufacturing plant and her mother was a payroll clerk. In addition to her law degree, Kolakowski has master's degrees in biomedical engineering, electrical engineering and public administration. She has a master's degree in divinity from the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, and is an ordained minister in the Metropolitan Community Church. She lives in Oakland with her wife, whom she married in San Francisco in 2004, before courts ruled those marriages illegal, and in Oakland in 2008, after the state Supreme Court ordered counties to allow same-sex marriage.

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