Judicial Firsts: 13 Judges Who Pioneered Judicial Diversity (Pt. 2)

Hispanic Americans

The Honorable Reynaldo G. Garza, an alumnus of The University of Texas School of Law, was the first Mexican American federal judge when he was appointed by President John F. Kennedy to the Southern District Court in 1961. He served as chief judge of the district from 1974 to 1979.

In 1979, Carter appointed Garza to the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. The appointment made him the first Mexican American to sit on that bench. He assumed senior status in 1982 and continued to work until a month before his death in 2004.

Judge Garza’s life and his more than forty years of service as a federal judge have left an indelible impression on the judiciary. He received many honors, including two decorations from Pope Pius XII for his leadership and service to the Catholic Church. Two elementary schools, one in Brownsville and another in McAllen, bear his name.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor became an instant American icon when she became the first Hispanic American and third woman appointed to the US Supreme Court in 2009 by President Obama.

Born in the Bronx, New York City, she graduated summa cum laude with a B.A from Princeton University. She received her J.D. from Yale Law School after serving as an editor at the Yale Law Journal.

After graduation, she served as an assistant district attorney in New York for five years. She entered private practice in 1984, before being nominated to serve on the US District Court for the Southern District of New York by President Bush in 1991.
While serving in that capacity, Justice Sotomayor issued two famous rulings. The first was an injunction against Major League Baseball which ended the 1994 baseball strike. She also ruled to allow the Wall Street Journal to publish Vince Foster’s final note.

In 1997, Bill Clinton nominated her to serve on the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit where she heard more than 3000 appeals and wrote almost four hundred opinions. She had also taught at NYU School of Law and Columbia Law School.

Justice Sotomayor was President Barack Obama’s first nominee to the US Supreme Court.

Native Americans

Judge Frank Howell Seay was the first Native American appointed to the federal bench. His paternal grandfather was a full-blooded Native American, yet he did not discover his Native American heritage until after he was appointed to the federal bench.

Oklahoma has always been his home. He received both his BA (in 1961) and law degree (in 1963) from the University of Oklahoma. After law school, he practiced as a private attorney and worked as an attorney for Seminole County.

In 1967, Judge Seay became the First Assistant district attorney for the 22nd Judicial District of Oklahoma. Only a year later, he was elected Associate Judge of the District Court of Oklahoma for Seminole County where he served for six years. He was elevated to the level of judge in 1974, and held this position until 1979.

In 1979, Judge Seay was appointed to the US District Court for the Eastern District of Oklahoma by President Carter, becoming the first Native American appointed to a federal court. He served as chief justice of the said court just a year later.

His notable cases include his decision to uphold as constitutional the Oklahoma Right to Work Law, and reverse the rulings that led to the unjust convictions of two men in Pontotoc County, a case depicted in the John Grishman book, The Innocent Man.

Judge Carol Jean Vigil was the first Native American woman to be elected as a state district judge in the US and the first female Native American to be elected a state court judge in New Mexico. She was a member of the Pueblo people.

She received her BA and law degree from the University of New Mexico. She became the first Pueblo woman to be admitted to the New Mexico state bar following her completion of law school. She was sworn in as a New Mexican 1st Judicial District state judge in 1998, becoming the first Native American female judge in New Mexico and the first Native American to be elected a judge of any general jurisdiction court in the United States.

In a tribute to her heritage, Vigil was sworn into office while wearing a black judicial robe decorated with beaded Pueblo Indian symbols that included lightning, clouds, rain and mountains embroidered on her shoulders.

In one of her most notable rulings, Judge Vigil upheld state court jurisdiction over tort claims for personal injury which had been filed by customers of Native American gambling enterprises. The Puebloans of New Mexico opposed her decision, but she was ultimately upheld by the state supreme court.


Judge Deborah Batts became the nation’s first openly LGBT, African American federal judge when was sworn in as a judge for US District Court for the Southern District of New York in 1994.

As a federal judge, Judge Batts had overseen a variety of high-profile cases and hearings. In 1999, she oversaw the indictment of Cheng Yong Wang and Xingqi Fu, charged with attempting to sell the organs of executed Chinese prisoners. She granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss the indictment.

In 2001, she wrote an opinion resolving the issues of the sentencing hearing of Al-Qaeda co-founder Mamdouh Mahmud Salim for the stabbing of a prison guard while Salim awaited trial in the case of the 1998 US embassy bombings.

She was also the judge in a widely publicized 2006 case against EPA Chief Christine Todd Whitman. Whitman was charged for her failure to adequately warn New Yorkers of the health risks involved in returning to their homes after the September 11th terrorist attacks.

In 2011, Judge Batts married Dr. Gwen Lois Zornberg, a lead medical officer epidemiologist for the Food and Drug Administration. A year later, she took senior status.

The Honorable Rives Kistler joined the Oregon Supreme Court as an Associate Justice in August 2003, after serving four years as a judge on the Oregon Court of Appeals. At the time of his appointment, he was the only openly LGBT state Supreme Court justice in the country.

Justice Kistler graduated summa cum laude from Georgetown University Law Center in 1981.  He went into private practice as a litigation associate for Stoel Rives LLP in Portland from 1983 to 1987. He then moved to the Oregon Department of Justice and served as an Assistant Attorney General for 12 years, representing the state in civil and criminal appeals before the state and federal courts.

In addition, Justice Kistler has taught state constitutional law as an adjunct professor at Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland. He is a former member and vice-chair of the Oregon Board of Bar Examiners and a former member of the National Association of Attorneys General Working Groups on criminal law, federalism, and free speech; he served as chair of the working group on free speech.

Judge Victoria Kolakowski (born Michael Kolakowski) is the first openly transgender person to serve as a trial judge in the country after being appointed as judge of Alameda County Superior Court in 2011.

Judge Kolakowski graduated from New College of Florida with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Natural Sciences in 1982, and earned master’s degrees in biomedical engineering, electrical engineering, public administration, and divinity. She received a law degree from Louisiana State University.

She began transition in 1989 (her last year in law school) and had sex reassignment surgery in 1991.

In 2010, Judge Kolakowski campaigned for a judgeship on the Superior Court of Alameda County, California, where she was elected with 51% of the vote to her opponent’s 48%. She won by 10,000 votes. Her victory was significant, not only for the transgender community, but also for women, who occupy a small percentage of judgeships. She received California’s Equality and Justice Award.

Kolakowski co-chaired the Transgender Law Center, an organization dedicated to the well-being and protection of transgender individuals. She serves on the California Council of Churches and is a volunteer clergy member at the New Spirit Community Church.

In 2008, Judge Kolakowski married Cynthia Laird, news editor of the Bay Area Reporter.