Spotlight on Chief Judge Judith K. Brawka, Kane County’s first female Chief Judge
Chief Judge Judith K. Brawka was only 17 years old when she decided to pursue a legal career. She states her father encouraged her to pursue a legal career because he thought it would be a good profession for women. He also thought it would be a good profession for her specifically because he felt his teenage daughter had a flair for dramatics and the ability to argue relentlessly for an often meritless situation in his opinion.
Judge Brawka graduated from DePaul University in 1975 and Northwestern College of Law in 1978. I asked her about the number of women in her law school class and how she was treated by her male classmates and professors. She states that there was a big push at the time to admit women to law school. She estimates that more than a quarter of her law school class was women. Judge Brawka says her male classmates were much more accepting of women in law school than the professors. She believes that all of the professors, young or old had a difficult time with women in class. The older ones because they did not feel women should be there. The younger ones because they had not gone to law school with women and were institutionalized to believe that law school was for men. Some professors were unaccustomed to women challenging them and their reasoning. Other professors seemed to be bemused by the women and their ideas. Overall Judge Brawka believes that the men involved in her law school experience had a difficult time finding boundaries for their relationships with the women in her class. Professors in particular couldn’t seem to decide if these women should be treated as sexual partners or students.
After law school Judge Brawka knew she wanted to pursue a career in public service. She initially interviewed with Mary Robinson at the Appellate Defender’s Office because there was a posted vacancy. However Judge Brawka was not fond of writing which was essential for the job. Robinson gave her a contact at the Kane County Public Defender’s Office. Brawka interviewed around Christmas time. Geneva had its full Christmas regalia out including a large star of Bethlehem on top of the courthouse. Brawka had traveled out to Geneva around dusk and spotted the star as she rolled into town. She remembers thinking maybe that was a good omen. Brawka fell in love with the quaintness of Geneva and thought it would be a good place to work. She interviewed at the old Hansel and Gretel restaurant near the courthouse and was hired in 1978. Eight years later she was appointed as the head of the Kane County Public Defender’s Office, a post she held until 1998, when she was made an associate judge.
Judge Brawka recalls that there were very few women involved in the courtroom practice of law in Kane County when she started out. Former Circuit Judge Patricia Golden was practicing at that time and was a great source of support for her. Brawka also recalls that Circuit Judge Karen Simpson was hired as a student with a 711 license shortly after Brawka started in the Public Defender’s Office. Brawka relates that there was a group of about 12 women practicing law in the area that met monthly for dinner to support each other.
Judge Brawka found the judges in Kane County at that time to be more progressive thinkers than the judges she had appeared in front of in Cook County as a 711. In Kane she found that some judges had difficulties with boundaries with women, but that most were cautiously polite. Brawka also found her male colleagues to be accepting. She states, “Maybe I was wearing rose colored glasses but that behavior was not focused on me,” relating that she did not personally experience any overt problems or issues. Brawka did, however, witness the discrimination of other women, in that they were often treated dismissively by the judges. Often when the male Assistant State’s Attorneys would see this behavior from the judges they would jump in and belittle the women as well. Brawka attributes the close-knit nature of the courthouse between the Public Defenders, State’s Attorneys and Judiciary as giving her a shield in that area. She states that working so closely together brings a certain level of familiarity and trust so she was not targeted. She adds that she was a hard worker and was always prepared for court.
Judge Brawka believes that the attitude towards women has come a long way since she started. She attributes the fact that many of her male counterparts have had daughters that have entered the profession in making a world of difference. Brawka feels that the struggle of women in the profession to find balance in their lives has also benefitted younger male attorneys. Many younger attorneys in her experience have determined that they don’t want to work so much that they don’t have time for family. She feels the younger generation realizes that you can work hard and do well in the profession and still develop strong family bonds and relationships.
Judge Brawka believes that women have brought new insights to the profession. She credits the women before her that helped pave the road for her and the other women that follow. While Brawka feels the legal profession is much more accepting of women now, she believes the first inroads for women were made in the criminal arena and that is where women have found the most success overall in terms of acceptance. Brawka was the Presiding Judge of the Civil Division in Kane County from 2009-2012. She notes that very few women practice in the “big money” civil arena and that there are virtually no female “first chairs” handling those cases outside of Cook County. Judge Brawka notes that arena is still predominantly men.
When asked what advice she would give to new female attorneys, Judge Brawka states that those women need to have an appreciation for the fact that the role of women in the profession has been a work in progress. She states that women need to conduct themselves in a manner that is appropriate of the progress that has been made and to think about what they can do to make the progress move forward. Judge Brawka strongly believes that women need to be role models as a good professional attorneys, and not try to be “one of the boys.” She finds it disheartening to see women swearing like “sailors” in a need to fit in with certain groups of men, or not calling men out on their inappropriate comments or off-color jokes. Similarly she finds it unfortunate that some women wear inappropriate clothing to court. Brawka states both men and women should come to court dressed appropriately and prepared on the facts of their case.
When asked what was the biggest challenge she faced in her legal career, Judge Brawka said it was difficult to rise above the stereotypes that the men in the profession had for women. She states it was difficult to always be “on”. However, being forced to always be “on” made her well prepared on every case. Brawka relates she was only the second woman that had ever been a public defender in Kane County. Judge Brawka was asked repeatedly after she started “you’re not going to cry are you”? Apparently her predecessor sometimes cried in court. Judge Brawka learned quickly that any show of emotion, even if it was an emotion a man would show in court, would be counted as a strike against her.
When asked why she personally believes diversity is important in the profession and on the bench, Judge Brawka states that we learn so much from other people’s life experiences and that our exposure to others does wonders to open our minds. She believes that being a minority anywhere is difficult and can feel incredibly isolating. Diversity brings understanding and is a benefit for everyone.
The late Justice Thurgood Marshall is quoted as saying, “Nobody got where they are by pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps.” I asked Brawka “What does that quote mean to you, both personally and professionally, particularly for women?” Judge Brawka related that she would not be where she is today without the example of other women that came before her, like Patty Golden. She also credits the network of women that banded together for those monthly dinners to lend support, guidance and friendship. Incidentally Thurgood Marshall was a great source of inspiration to Judge Brawka. She recalls sending him a “Get Well” card when he was sick while she was in law school. One of her most treasured possessions is a response letter she received from his wife.
I asked Judge Brawka what she has done personally and professionally to help other women achieve their goals in the profession. She states she has tried to help women and men achieve good things in the profession. In addition she has encouraged diversity through hiring practices and has tried to give good experiences to diverse candidates that have been hired by giving them projects to challenge themselves. Judge Brawka has also tried to be supportive and encouraged more women to apply for judicial positions.
Justice Bradley of the U.S. Supreme Court wrote in the Myra Bradwell case that “[t]he constitution of the family organization, which is founded in divine ordinance, as well as in the nature of things, indicates the domestic sphere as that which properly belongs to the domain and function of womanhood.” I asked Judge Brawka her thoughts on that quote. She states that she believes fewer men subscribe to that theory than before but that many women still think that way.
Judge Brawka feels that the increasing number of women in the practice of law and in the judiciary has affected how law is practiced. She states that no one, on their deathbed wishes they had spent more time at the office. She credits the influx of women to the profession for raising the bar and setting the example that life is about your choices. As more women have risen in the profession people have realized that they can be a success at work and still have a loving and nurturing family. Success as she states is all how you define it.
As for what challenges she believes still exist for women in the profession today Judge Brawka states that it is still a challenge for women to move forward into partnership and management positions, and to maintain the viability of their practices financially which is common to all lawyers.
Judge Brawka was elected to serve out the balance of Justice Robert Spence’s term as Chief Judge in November of 2012. She was subsequently elected to her own term in 2013 making her the first female Chief Judge for Kane County. Her term will end on December 1, 2015. Judge Brawka states she is grateful to have the opportunity to work for and with her fellow judges in managing the court system and enjoys working to solve the challenges that come along the way. She also appreciates the opportunity to achieve some goals that resonate with her personally, such as the start up for the Residential Foreclosure Mediation Program and collaborating to improve the education and services for the children housed at the Juvenile Detention Center.
I asked Chief Judge Brawka what her personal goals were for the future and she responded “To make sure I leave this justice system a little bit better place than when I started in 1978.” ■