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Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Q&A: Victoria Kolakowski

Posted By on Tue, Jun 3, 2008 at 8:03 AM

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By Edward Paik

Today folks in Alameda County will have the opportunity to vote for one of four candidates for Superior Court Judge, including transgender administrative law judge and attorney Victoria Kolakowski. If elected with a win of more than 50 percent of the vote, Kolakowski will become the nation’s first known transgender trial court judge. Yesterday afternoon, The Snitch chatted Kolakowski up to quiz her on politics and advocacy:

There are four candidates running for the position of Superior Court Judge of Alameda, which is an unusual opportunity for voters. What stances have you taken to persuade the public that you are the best candidate?

Victoria Kolakowski: I am an administrative law judge for the California Public Utilities Commission and so I am the only candidate in the race who actually has real world experiences conducting hearings and making decisions on evidence. So what I bring to the table in this race is that I’m the person who has the most judicial type of experience, and I’m running because I want there to be an increased access to the courts. I think everyone should have the opportunity to be heard. One of the things I’ve learned, as an administrative law judge, is experience that a lot of people aren’t able to afford attorneys, and so we have to be sensitive to make sure that this process in done in a way that everyone can fully participate. I’m also concerned about increased diversity in the bench for Alameda County, and I’m the only woman in the race, I’m openly lesbian and if I’m elected I would be probably the first transgender trial court judge in the United States. It’s important that the court reflect the community that it represents, and that it helps bring about a better understanding of the system to different people and their experiences. I think that it will be an opportunity for those who interact with the legal system to see from our community and the LGTB community in a more positive constructive way to the mainstream of our society.

Considering the current state of the economy, what are some of the dominant issues you believe will be important to you as Superior Court Judge?

The important thing to a judge is that a judge has to be able to apply the law fairly to all people. So if your running for judge it’s not like you take positions on issues but what we do bring to the table is our experience, both professionally and personally. That helps us understand and how to apply those laws to individual situations and I believe that my experience as an administrative law judge and as a person with a broad legal and technical background, as well as life experience, makes me very well prepared to be able to deal with the most complicated issues that could come up in the court. The Superior Court deals with everything from small claims to major billion dollars cases everything, from misdemeanors all the way up to federal cases. You don’t know when you get on the bench what kind of assignment you’re going to get.

Transparency in government decisions is something you advocate - how have you made this possible concerning your decisions?

One of the things that have been mentioned as a law judge is that we conduct ourselves in a very open manner and so I’m used to the idea. We conduct ourselves to the extent that is possible that things should be public, and its something that not all judges are comfortable with. What I believe in are open trials, I think that it is important to the public as long as something doesn’t appear in the proceedings that can comprise a witness’s [well being.] But in general we should make our government available, open and understandable to the public as much as possible

Understanding that you are an ordained minister, what is your relationship with religion and its influence on your performance with the law?

I’ve verged on the belief that there is a separation between state and church in this country. I am a person of faith, but that doesn’t mean that I would want to publish my ideas on other people. One of the things that are important about [being an ordained minister] is that I’ve been trained to listen to people to hear where they’re coming from, and as a result I think that it helps me enhance my abilities both as a trained mediator as well as even hearing disputes professionally as an administrative law judge. I think that it’s important that you have somebody who can listen and hear what people are saying. But in terms of specific religious things I don’t believe that that’s appropriate to bring in the courtroom just like my politics aren’t going to be what defines my decisions. I’m going to apply the law. Sometimes as a judge you might have to apply laws that you’re not comfortably with but that’s part of the process. My job as an administrative law judge now, and I hope as a Superior Court judge later will be to be able to fairly apply the law that’s fair to the individual situation

As an advocate for LGBT community, where will you go to further support said community?

First of all, I think that it is a positive thing for the LGBT community, for those in that community to be active participants in the broader community in professional ways. Being open about who we are but being able to do our jobs in an appropriate and professional manner, which is what I’ve done up till this point and what I will continue to do. I think that my mere presence on the court will be a positive experience with those I interact with because a lot of people don’t have the experience dealing with a person that’s transgendered. In a lot of ways I think being there and doing the job will be the most positive way I will be able to teach the community.

The Supreme Court recently passed a same-sex marriage initiative that is up for a ban in November’s state ballot. As a supporter of LGBT rights, what is your stance on the matter and how would you rule?

It’s a state decision so that is the law everyone has to follow, and it matters to the LGTB people. Like with any other matter, I’m going to decide upon the law and the facts of the case. I’m not running for office to be an activist judge, I’m an activist wanting to be a judge. There’s a big difference. I’m not running for political office to promote a specific political agenda I’d rather just be open and sensitive to everyone.

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Janine Kahn

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