Trailblazing judge reflects on career

Twenty-two years ago, I took the oath of judicial office to the United States District Court for the District of Kansas. I was the 23rd individual, and the first woman, to hold that position. Few are blessed with the opportunity to do something which is historically unprecedented. So I approached my swearing-in ceremony on October 30, 1992, with an acute awareness of that fact, a reverence for the judicial system which has served us so well and a thrill which even now is almost beyond belief.

People often ask whether I always hoped to become a federal judge. The answer to that is no – a resounding no. When I started law school at KU in 1972, no woman had ever been on the United States Supreme Court. Only one woman had served on a federal court of appeals. On the trial court level, we had only four women in the entire federal judiciary. Back then, it was common for bar organizations to meet in private men’s clubs – as a lawyer, I remember having to take the service elevator in the kitchen of the University Club to attend bar luncheons. The idea that I might become a federal judge was too far-fetched to warrant serious consideration.

Fast forward 40 years. Today we have 249 women in the federal district courts – 23 percent of the total. Women represent at least half of the legal talent pool in America. And we have a way to go in the federal judiciary, but the day is over when women only appear in high places as token performers.

As I said, I did not start out with any far-fetched notions of becoming a judge – let alone a federal judge. Almost by accident, I became a municipal judge in Prairie Village in 1990. For two years I addressed the entire range of human foibles: drinkers, speeders, window peepers, exhibitionists, picketers, property code violators, and so forth. Calvin Trillin, who wrote for The New Yorker, even picked up on one of my cases – where an irate store owner threw a jar of gefilte fish at a customer and broke the customer’s windshield. To be fair, Mr. Trillin wasn’t much interested in the fact that I had broken the glass ceiling in the Prairie Village judiciary. He was mostly bewildered that a kosher grocer would sell gefilte fish in a jar.

Fresh out of law school, from 1975 to 1978, I was a law clerk for the Hon. Earl E. O’Connor in the District of Kansas. I came to the clerkship, more or less, by indirection. In 1975, I graduated near the top of my class at the University of Kansas Law School. I had set my sights on large-firm practice in downtown Kansas City, but like the other 12 or 13 women in my class, I soon found that this option was beyond my reach. In the end, almost by default, I took a law clerkship position with Judge O’Connor. It was not my first choice, or his. Judge O’Connor had never employed a woman law clerk and he was not enthusiastic or optimistic about the prospect. He was, however, true to his school – KU Law. In the final analysis, I received my clerkship because Martin B. Dickinson, in his capacity as then-dean of the KU School of Law, asked Judge O’Connor to give me a chance. By the time I left my clerkship three years later, my inauspicious introduction to the federal judiciary was a source of candid amusement to both me and Judge O’Connor. Little did either of us dream what the future had in store.

When I had the chance to fill Judge O’Connor’s vacancy in 1992, and to return to the court family where I had begun my legal career, it was extraordinary in every respect. To work with Judge O’Connor again, to enjoy such learned and accommodating colleagues – the whole experience has been a challenge, a great energizer and a privilege beyond compare. I owe it all to a great legal education at KU Law, and fantastic mentors among its faculty, administration and graduates.

— Kathryn H. Vratil, L’75, Chief Judge Emeritus, United States District Court for the District of Kansas