Inclusivity in the California Court System
On today’s show, we’re joined by Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Andi Mudryk, the first openly transgender person in California history to be appointed by a governor to a seat on the California bench. Disability Rap listeners may remember that Andi joined us on the show last year when she was Chief Deputy Director of the California Department of Rehabilitation. In that interview, we talked with Andi about her career in civil rights law, primarily focusing on advocacy for people with disabilities, as well as her personal experiences as someone with a physical disability. On this episode of Disability Rap, Judge Andi Mudryk speaks to us about the intersection of LGBTQIA+ Pride and Disability Pride and about how representation in the courts builds trust with communities and helps create a more just and equitable future.
CARLY PACHECO, HOST: From KVMR and in partnership with FREED, this is Disability Rap.
JUDGE ANDI MUDRYK: Government should reflect all of the communities that it serves; that we are public servants, and we do our best when public servants are representative of the communities they serve.
PACHECO: Today, we speak with Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Andi Mudryk, the first openly transgender person in California history to be appointed by a governor to the bench.
JUDGE MUDRYK: You know, there’s been a lot of attention to the fact that I’m openly transgender as a judge, and kind of less attention to the fact that I have a disability. And I do think that that says something; that there are very few judges who are open about their disabilities.
PACHECO: That’s all coming up right here on Disability Rap. Stay tuned!
PACHECO: Welcome to Disability Rap. I’m Carly Pacheco. In April, our guest, Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Andi Mudryk, made headlines as the first openly transgender person in California history to be appointed by a governor to a seat on the California bench. Disability Rap listeners may remember that Andi joined us on the show last year when she was Chief Deputy Director of the California Department of Rehabilitation. In that interview, we talked with Andi about her career in civil rights law, primarily focusing on advocacy for people with disabilities, as well as her personal experiences as someone with a physical disability. You can listen to that interview on our website, FREED.org/disabilityrap. We invited Andi back on the show to reflect on her historic appointment and share her hopes for her time on the bench.
My co-host, Carl Sigmond, spoke with Andi last week.
CARL SIGMOND, HOST: So, Judge Mudryk, welcome back to Disability Rap. First, congratulations on this historic appointment.
JUDGE MUDRYK: Thank you, Carl. It’s my absolute pleasure to be back with you.
SIGMOND: I want to begin by asking you: How does it feel to be the first openly trans person in California to be appointed by a Governor to the bench? I understand you are only one of two openly trans people serving on the California bench. And you have a significant disability. So, how does it all feel?
JUDGE MUDRYK: It’s been an amazing, overwhelming, humbling experience. First, I want to acknowledge Governor Newsom and his Appointment Secretary, Louise Cespedes, who… You know, the Governor has a vision of a California for all, and I was privileged to be appointed by the Governor in my prior position as Chief Deputy Director at the Department of Rehabilitation. And the Governor really means what he says about a California for all, and that government should reflect all of the communities that it serves; that we are public servants, and we do our best when public servants are representative of the communities they serve.
And so, I just want to acknowledge the Governor for his tremendous work on diversifying leadership within government overall. And with his Appointment Secretary, Louise Cespedes, is really diversifying the bench. We have many firsts to encounter in this country, and being a first as the first openly transgender judge appointed by a California Governor, it feels amazing. I am humbled and privileged to be in this role, and I take it very seriously.
The judiciary really has the confidence of the community that it serves when its bench reflects the communities that it serves, and transgender people are part of the community. You know, there have been many firsts on the bench. Again I take that position incredibly seriously, plan to do my utmost best, because I know how important it is.
I also want to acknowledge that I’m not the first transgender judge on the bench in California. As you said, there is another judge, Victoria Kolakowski, who really paved the way for me and I want to give credit to Judge Kolakowski. She was not appointed by a governor; she assumed the bench more than a decade ago. I believe at that time – actually probably before this year – probably would have been impossible for a transgender judge to be appointed by a governor, and so she ran for election and won. And just want to acknowledge her first in that role.
I also want to say that folks have been incredibly welcoming and supportive of me on the Sacramento County Superior Court, and it’s been just an amazing experience. I still can’t believe I’m here and I pinch myself every day. I also want to acknowledge, like you said, that I do have a significant disability as we talked about last time. I have Osteogenesis Imperfecta, or OI, also known as brittle bone disorder, and my bones break easily.
You know, there’s been a lot of attention to the fact that I’m openly transgender as a judge, and kind of less attention to the fact that I have a disability. And I do think that that says something. That there are very few judges who are open – I want to use this word with disability, as well – are open about their disabilities. That is as important as anything else. That we have judges who have disabilities just like we have people in the community who have disabilities, and the perspective that I bring as a person with a disability is equally important.
SIGMOND: Thank you, Andi. I want to dig into something you mentioned about the judiciary needing to earn the trust of the communities it serves. And right now, I’m not only talking about Sacramento County, but the judicial system as a whole. In this country, we think of the judiciary protecting and upholding the rights of marginalized communities. We know about the historic Olmstead decision, which found that people with disabilities have the right to live in the communities of our choice. So, upholding the rights of marginalized people. And yet, in a recent interview you did on CapRadio, you talked a bit about what more needs to be done in the judicial system to make it more welcoming, make it more accessible. I’m wondering if you can talk a bit about both of these truths together.
JUDGE MUDRYK: So, I can talk about an initiative that we have here at the Sacramento County Superior Court, which I think is most likely applicable to courts throughout the state. In April of last year, the court began what it calls the Community Engagement and Fairness Committee, and I had the pleasure of sitting on the committee when I was… before I was appointed. And now that I’m a judge, [I] have the pleasure of doing some work with the committee. And its goal really is realizing that we are public servants; that we serve all of the community, and all of the communities. That we want to educate ourselves. We want to hear from community members who are part of the committee about how to best serve diverse communities, you know, and looking at particular communities.
So, when we look at the disability community, for example, it’s all sorts of issues, including: Is our courthouse accessible to people with disabilities, to people with physical disabilities, intellectual/developmental disabilities, mental health disability, sensory disabilities, across the board. Nothing in society is perfect at this point and so what can we do, and what should we do to accommodate folks, and to make the court and all who come into contact with the court, make it welcoming and accessible?
You know, many of the courthouses throughout the state were constructed decades ago, before code requirements were what they are today. And there are some instances where courthouses are not as physically accessible as they could be, right? And so, in that instance, really thinking about, well, what do we do then? Can people get into the courthouse? Once they’re in the courthouse, if they are a witness, for example, how do they get up into the jury box, which often has a couple steps to get in there? If they’re called as a juror, how do they get into the jury box when there’s often a couple steps to get into the jury box? If they’re an attorney who uses a wheelchair, for example, how do they navigate the council table and presenting exhibits and that sort of thing?
And so, just looking at all of those issues. When folks with mental health disabilities, for example, encounter the courthouse, are we sensitive and know how to talk to people, right? [Do we] know how to provide simple accommodations to people with all sorts of disabilities who might just need extra time, or a reader, or a captioner, or an ASL interpreter, all of those sorts of things? So, I think there’s a lot of work being done across the state to bring attention to this issue, particularly on the disability community, and to really improve how we serve that community.
You know, obviously, there are all sorts of communities and really understanding, you know… I’ll speak just for myself, from my communities LGBTQIA+ community, specifically the transgender community. How do we refer to people? What pronouns do we use? How do we broach a subject if we’re unsure of someone’s pronouns? How do we ensure that you know as court personnel we’re not assuming sexual orientation or gender identity? Things like that.
I think I talked in my last interview about my transition process, and part of my transition process – and it was, you know, within the last four years – was changing – legally changing – my name and my gender. And when I came to the Sacramento County Superior Courthouse, there was actually a window just for name and gender change, which made me feel really welcome and comfortable. So, it’s things like that, thinking about how we serve our communities in the most culturally appropriate ways possible.
SIGMOND: Thank you, and this leads me into my next question. Where do you see us going as a disability rights movement? What do you see as our next biggest hurdle that we’ll need to overcome? And then, what role do you see the court system in this country playing in the next phase of our movement?
JUDGE MUDRYK: You know, [it’s a] really complicated question, and really hard to say there’s one particular area. I will say, having most recently come from working in the Department of Rehabilitation, that I think about employment a lot. You talked about the Olmstead decision, and recognizing the right under the Americans with Disabilities Act for people with disabilities to live in the communities of their choice. And incredibly important.
And I think about how much employment is related to that in the sense that the unemployment rate of people with disabilities is incredibly high as compared to the unemployment rate of people without disabilities. And the number of people with significant disabilities who work full-time earning a sustainable wage working at jobs where they have health care benefits, that percentage is incredibly low as well.
And so, I think about the importance in our movement of people with disabilities getting employed, supporting themselves, gaining wealth, and having health benefits. Obviously, health care is incredibly important. In-home supportive services is incredibly important, and education, special education, all kinds of things. But a key component is employment. And what are we going to do to improve the employment rate of people with disabilities?
We have really strong disability civil rights laws: the Americans with Disabilities Act. In California, our disability civil rights are even stronger than the ADA. And yet, we’re still not seeing increases in the employment rate of people with disabilities. So, it’s something we need to focus on. [It’s a] very complicated issue [with] many factors at play, including stigma against people with disabilities, fear of people with disabilities of losing benefits – losing health care benefits – if they go to work and they’re currently receiving benefits. There’s the supportive services cliff, right? So people who need personal care attendants – you know, significant needs – and that might be supported by public benefits. And then, if they get employed, earn too much to have those benefits, and then not [be] able to pay for them, right? It’s all of those issues, but I do think it’s something we have to figure out and solve.
In terms of the courts, I’m in a different role now than I was as an advocate in the community. And judges and the court system are here to apply the law to the facts of the cases before them, and to treat all parties with respect and dignity. Keep an open mind, not make decisions before they’ve heard all of the relevant facts and considered the law. I think the judiciary has a role to play when you look at the supreme court’s Olmstead decision, implementing a statute, implementing the ADA and realizing that least restrictive environment includes the right of people with disabilities to live in the community. And so, I think it’s courts interpreting the laws, including the disability rights laws, you know, it is a part of it.
SIGMOND: And what actions or what message can advocates on the outside take to push us forward in the way you have just outlined?
JUDGE MUDRYK: It’s advocacy to further rights in areas that the community sees as necessary… absolutely important. I think equally important is representation in positions of authority and power, right? Just like it’s important to have a transgender person as a judge, or a chief deputy director, or a legislator – you name it. Or a person of color in those positions. Equally important to have people with disabilities in these positions. I think something the advocacy community could focus on is really pushing for us to be included, having a seat at the table in places where it matters, right?
I think… I don’t know if… Probably, Ruth Bader Ginsburg. There’s a quote that’s going around: “Women should have a seat at the table when all important decisions are being made.” I just butchered the quote, but something like that. It’s the same for people with disabilities, right? And really looking at how are we nurturing, mentoring, supporting folks to move into positions? And that’s actually something I take very seriously in my role. And how can I mentor other folks with disabilities, other LGBTQIA+ folks, to think about judicial careers, or think about positions in leadership in in any area? And that is just as important as any other action, I think.
SIGMOND: As we begin to wrap up, Judge Mudryk, you have said that you view pride as the opposite of shame. I’m wondering if you could expand on that and share some advice for people with one or more marginalized identities to find our own pride.
JUDGE MUDRYK: I can’t speak for other communities. I can only speak for myself and what I know. And as a person with a disability, as a transgender woman, I received messages throughout my lifetime that I was less than, and not qualified, and didn’t have a right to be who I was, and really for both identities. Probably really more so for my transgender identity. I come from a family of people with disabilities.
I might have spoken about this last year: my mother and my sister both have OI like I do. And so, less shame about my disability and incredible shame about my gender identity. And pride to me is not just celebrating and having parades, although [I’m] all in favor of it. It’s about realizing that who we are is something to be celebrated and proud of. And not in a boastful way, but in an anti-shame way. That we are not ashamed of ourselves, we are proud to be who we are, and we need to be open and out in public. And I mean that both about my transgender identity and my disability identity. And there’s been talk for years about the disability pride movement and I would love to see the community fully embrace that concept of celebrating us and being proud of who we are. Not being just thankful to have equity, but to demand equity and to be proud of who we are.
PACHECO: That was Carl’s interview from last week with Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Andi Mudryk, the first openly transgender person in California history to be appointed by a governor to a seat on the California bench. We also interviewed Andi last year when she was the Chief Deputy Director of the California Department of Rehabilitation. To listen to that interview from a year ago, go to our website, FREED.org/disabilityrap.
And that does it for this show. Disability Rap is produced and edited by Carl Sigmond. Special thanks to Courtney Williams for her support. To listen to this show again, go to FREED.org/disabilityrap or wherever you get your podcasts. We are brought to you by KVMR in partnership with FREED and are distributed by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange. I’m Carly Pacheco with Carl Sigmond for another edition of Disability Rap.