In the second of a series, read about Julie Emede, an openly lesbian judge who has served on the bench since February 2010.
Even when members of the LGBTQ community feel comfortable in their own identity, fears can still seep in about being accepted and respected in daily life.
Stemming in part from her experiences finding acceptance as an out lesbian from Michigan to California, Emede prides herself on trying to have a greater understanding of people’s circumstances when they become before a judge.
“I think coming to court for anybody is scary, but I think it’s additionally scary if you feel like you’re different and have something else that you have to think or worry about than anybody else,” Emede says. “It’s really important to me as a judge that when people come into my courtroom, they feel like they can say whatever they need to say about their circumstances and not be afraid that they’re going to tell me something that will cause me to treat them with any less respect or any less dignity and they’re entitled to it in my courtroom. I work really hard at that.”
Emede had a “classic Midwest life,” growing up in a medium-sized town in Michigan. But after graduating from Michigan State in 1984, she began coming out and questioning whether the Midwest would be a place she could find happiness and acceptance.
“So, I moved to California,” Emede says. “I definitely believe that the way my life is now and the things I’ve been able to do professionally, I could not have done if I’d stayed in Michigan.”
That’s when she acquired a job at Hewlett Packard in Palo Alto, where she worked for seven years in a range of positions, eventually managing the production scheduling for product lines from Malaysia and Singapore. Eventually, she took a voluntary severance from HP, which ended up paying for the first year of law school at UC Hastings College of the Law, commuting from San Jose to San Francisco.
Despite worries her sexuality would impact her success in the profession—particularly in passing the “moral application” required of all law students—Emede graduated and passed the bar in 1995. She worked for nearly two years in a “boutique” civil law firm in Tiburon, before ultimately ending up at a San Jose firm, where she eventually became a partner.
She says she was drawn to family law because she wanted to do a practice in an area that dealt with people with their real everyday lives, and was able to get her start from connections she made playing softball, of all things.
The idea of a judgeship had never really crossed Emede’s mind, since only a few lesbians had ever donned those robes when she started off as a lawyer. But by the late 2000s, she started giving real consideration to the idea of becoming a judge, from not only coworkers but also fellow LGBTQ lawyers who successfully were appointed. Despite being a Democrat when then-Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was in office, Emede submitted her application in early 2008 and was appointed to the bench by the end of 2009.
However, the application for judgeship brought back the same anxieties and questions she felt when applying for the bar: would being a lesbian threaten her chances at this career?
“It’s sort of a black box, it’s very behind the scenes,” Emede says. “But I knew I did really want to do something different that I felt was more public service.”
Emede and her partner, Marci Garcia, have been together for 31 years. After registering as domestic partners in 2001, they married in October 2008—hoping to tie the knot before the Prop 8 election would possibly take that right away. The couple were involved in different aspects of the LGBTQ community; she was on a clogging team that performed at Pride and was elected co-president of the political organization Bay Area Municipal Elections Committee, or BAYMEC, while her wife was a contestant in gay rodeos.
“If I hadn’t been involved with BAYMEC, I’m not sure I would’ve had the courage to seek appointment,” Emede says. “I recognize that I’ve benefited from all the hard work and groundbreaking that happened long before I was here. Without having people like Ken Yeager and Wiggy Sivertsen’s influence, I just don’t think that my path would be the same.”
However, Emede had to tone down that open involvement in LGBTQ community politics and events once she was appointed to the bench. While it was a sacrifice she had to make, she says it was worth it to be able to make a different kind of impact.
“Judges all understand that when we take our oath that we can’t be involved politically in the same way that we were before,” Emede says, even though she does still openly mention her wife in various settings, like at Bar Association meetings and when teaching lawyers and judges.
“I do look forward to someday being able to participate in a way again, but it’s been very different inside the system—working on cases one at a time as opposed to trying to work on broader change.”
Emede prides herself on her work as a judge, from broadening recognition of people’s pronouns in courtrooms and managing cases of name and gender changes on her court calendar.
“I think it’s important that there are people on our bench that reflect what people in our community look like, and I feel like it mattered for there to be an open lesbian on the bench,” Emede says. “I don’t think we’re probably out in the world enough for people to see that it does matter that we have judges on our bench that are LGBTQ. I think that that is a really powerful thing for the community to know.”