|She'll be the JUDGE|
by Holly Brockman-Johnson
In Jefferson County District Court, U of L's female grads rule.If you think the Jefferson County District Court is a male-dominated venue, then meet Judge Virginia. And Judge Sheila, Judge Judy, Judge Paula, Judge Janice, Judge Eleanore, Judge Mary, Judge Jackie, Judge Kathy, Judge Debbie and Judge Denise.
Since Olga Peers and Ellen Ewing were elected to the bench in 1977, the court has had a steady dose of female perspective. Today the Jefferson County District Court includes 11 female judges-nearly half the bench lineup. Nine are Brandeis School of Law graduates. Their diverse personalities and experiences have been making a huge impact on the region's courts and law enforcement system for the past decade. Read on to find out how.
Judge Virginia Whittinghill was among the first of the Brandeis women to be elected to district court, winning her seat in 1990. (Mary Corey won hers in 1986.) And she was the court's first female chief judge.
So what was it like?
She got what she calls "just the right amount of teasing" from her male colleagues. Some even taught her to curse, "but not while I'm on the bench, of course," Whittinghill laughs.
"They thought I was a real stick in the mud," she adds.
Maybe so. But that didn't stop her from gaining their respect.
Robert Stephens, now secretary of the state's justice cabinet, calls Whitting-hill "as good a public servant as I've known in 30-plus years of public life."
Stephens has served 20 years on the Kentucky Supreme Court-16 of those as chief justice-so that's a hefty compliment. He has dealt with a wide and divergent group of personalities, interests and energy levels-all bearing legitimate differences of opinion, he says, adding that Whittinghill is well-equipped to handle them.
"Judge Whittinghill is able to contribute an inordinate amount of time; she has great people skills and is very knowledgeable about the court system," Stephens notes.
Aside from respect for the wisdom behind her day-to-day rulings, Whittinghill's fans admire how she has implemented new programs and processes. Over the last 10 years, she has championed improvements in such areas as case management, pushing through a computerized system last year that already has been heralded for its efficiency and has become a model statewide.
"We initiated change when everybody else was just waiting for it to happen," Whittinghill says of its success.
The system connects the commonwealth's various courts and law-enforcement agencies via real-time data that also can be accessed by mobile computer. This enables personnel to immediately secure up-to-date information, an important asset when trying to determine, for instance, whether someone has an outstanding warrant or court order.
This year the judge is tackling another major project-the implementation of a special docket to manage mental health cases that focuses on treatment more than punishment.
"Some people with mental health problems are mostly in need of treatment," she says. "They don't always belong in jail."
Whittinghill also devotes a lot of energy to assisting less-experienced colleagues. Her bench experience and caring nature have made her a mentor to many.
Among other things, she has developed a packet that outlines specific protocol for such situations as ruling on a search warrant or emergency protective order in the dead of night.
This can be important to newcomers who, during a 24-hour on-call rotation, find themselves summoned to court in offhours when seasoned judges or advisers might not be available. Whittinghill attributes at least part of her success to the education she received at Brandeis. The school's mandatory pro bono program (see sidebar) did not exist when she attended law school; nevertheless, she praises it highly.
"U of L prepares students to navigate the system in the Jefferson County courts with internships that introduce and ingrain courtroom etiquette," she says. "Students participating in the pro-bono work receive good hands-on experience that is so beneficial to a soon-to-be lawyer."
Since being elected to the bench, Whittinghill has watched with enthusiasm as other U of L graduates earned their own judicial posts. Seeing so many women serve in district court has been encouraging, she says, but witnessing the depth and breadth of the recent law school graduates-both male and female-as they argue cases before her makes her even prouder.
Walking past Judge Paula Fitzgerald's office, one can see a red, white and blue "Votes for Women" sash hanging just inside her door-much like the one Jane and Michael Banks' mother wears in "Mary Poppins."
Upon closer inspection, the room's decor offers a glimpse of a soulful woman who enjoys not only gardening and eclectic music, but her work, too. Armed with a juris doctorate and a master's degree from the Kent School of Social Work, Fitzgerald is not just a part of the system-she has never been afraid to take on the system.
"I've always been an activist," she says to a visitor as she hurries from lunch to her afternoon court docket.
For proof she cites how, as a young student at St. Edward Catholic School in Cynthiana, Ky., she was always quick to take issue with the nuns and was known as a champion of the underdog.
"I spent half my early school years in the hall for that," she laughs. "I've always had this innate sense of justice and I never let any of the kids be mean to each other when I was growing up."
Fitzgerald was also a high school cheerleader, which some might think is a sign of conformity rather than of an activist. The judge, however, is quick to take issue with that assessment.
"In the early '60s, being a cheerleader was the only way for women to distinguish themselves," she counters.
"I quickly became radicalized."
One of the first inequities Fitzgerald tackled in adult life was the notorious glass ceiling that sometimes blocks the way of women seeking corporate advancement. This was especially prevalent back in the '70s when women were still relative newcomers in many parts of the work world. Her ceiling loomed over an especially tough arena-the Kentucky State Reformatory in LaGrange.
"Corrections was one of the last male-dominated professions. That's all I needed to get me going," she says.
Fitzgerald began as a guard on the 4 p.m.-to-midnight shift at the Kentucky Correctional Institution for Women in Pewee Valley, just outside Louisville. In 1978, she applied for a transfer to the men's prison at LaGrange as a caseworker.
Though she readily passed every test, security and otherwise, it still took months for the transfer to go through. And that was just the beginning.
When she got to the men's prison, Fitzgerald found that while its inmates were restricted by bars, barbed-wire fences, tall concrete walls and armed guards, its female employees encountered psychological barriers and gender-specific restrictions, too. She felt these undermined her credibility.
She believed the two chief culprits were the frequent "shakedowns" to which she was subjected-even her office and personal effects were searched-and the fact that a male escort had to accompany her whenever she entered the prison yard.
So she decided to do something about it. An intense letter-writing campaign followed and eventually it yielded the relaxation of the female-specific rules and practices.
In 1984, Fitzgerald waded into a new challenge: law school.
She then took the final step toward completing her three-part career plan that included earning a master's degree by 30, law degree by 40 and becoming a judge by 50. She's done it. And at no small expense.
According to long-time friend and campaign volunteer Suzette Gentry, Fitzgerald mounted a "grass-roots" run for district judge. Once again she relied on letters, addressing them to neighborhood associations and women's organizations. She also got out in public, going to union meetings and political events seeking votes.
An outsider by anyone's accounting, Fitzgerald celebrated her victory simply by watching the election returns on television from her Irish Hill home.
"I just wasn't going to make a big show of it," she says, adding that she's always tried to practice humility. "I think it's a quality we need to have."
Since gaining the judge's seat Fitzgerald hasn't changed a bit, Gentry says. As proof, she notes that Fitzgerald still attends the same meetings that she did during the campaign.
"She wants all the people to know she cares," Gentry says, "and that the connection she established hasn't been broken since she was elected."
Fitzgerald considered those meetings and visiting with her constituency part of the job even before it was her job.
"I believe it's very arrogant for a judge to pass judgment on people they don't spend time with and don't know anything about, "says Fitzgerald.
"She's not an assembly-line kind of a judge," her friend Gentry adds. "She wants to make a difference."
Family is a huge part of what Kathleen Voor Montano is all about, both professionally and personally.
In fact, she calls growing up in a strong Catholic family "on-the-job training" for a district court judge. Sandwiched in between Mary Pat, Bernie, Ruthie, Terri and Michael, Montano learned early on the survival tactics that have helped her endure the rigors of the bench, she says.
In a court system that sees nearly 4,000 cases per day (300 per judge), plus runs seven nights of traffic court and Saturday arraignment courts, endurance is a prime asset for a judge.
Montano graduated from Bellarmine College in 1984 with a degree in political science, followed three years later by her U of L law degree. Like many of the other judges, she worked her way through school, even financing a study-abroad program in Oxford, England, where she pondered political ideologies.
Once she was admitted to the bar, her career skyrocketed. It began in Louisville's city law department, then continued at a small firm where she worked as a civil litigator.
At the same time she and husband Joey Montano-whom she met in high school and who, incidentally, was born on the same day in the same hospital-began expanding their family.
Their first child, Joseph, was born in 1989 just before Kathleen accepted a position to review cases and write opinions for Judge Mike McDonald. The flexible work schedule was just what she needed with a new baby.
By early 1992, the couple had three more children: Catherine, born in January 1991, and twins Michael and Therese, who followed in March of the following year.
Her experiences as a mother and a middle child give Montano a real knack for mediation, she believes. The judiciary looked appealing as an environment where she could exercise those skills, so she decided to take a stab at district court judge.
"I liked being the person who listened and made the decision," she explains.
Today she's one of the new kids in the bench club, a member since July 1998. She's also one of the most superb, according to Whittinghill, her official court-appointed mentor.
Montano is "willing to try any case, Whittinghill says, "and she exhibits both a keen knowledge of the law and a zealous, can-do personality."
Montano also has a reputation for being able to argue the face off a clock while at the same time seeing the goodness in all-even when clouded by a person's negative side, which often surfaces in the courtroom.
Montano attributes much of her success to a family legacy of strong women who always have received solid support from both the men and women around them.
"That has made all the difference in my life and career," she remarks.
Joey Montano, not surprisingly, is part of that family support. He says his wife applies a lot of what she learns inside the courtroom at home.
It's not too often that one of the Montano kids gets away with something, he notes. They may talk a good case, but their mother usually gets to the heart of the matter fast.
"Kathy has a belief in herself that is unquestionable and she's not intimidated by anyone," Joey says.