around the bar
July 25, 2011

Trailblazer Woman Judge Faced Mistrust; Now Honored By _

By Rabiah Alicia Burks
_ News Service
July 25, 2011

WASHINGTON — Esther Tomljanovich, former Minnesota Supreme Court justice, is one of five trailblazing women attorneys to be honored with the 2011 Margaret Brent Women Lawyers of Achievement Award, given annually by the _ Commission on Women in the Profession.

Tomljanovich will receive her award on Aug. 7 at the 21st Annual Margaret Brent Women Lawyers of Achievement during the 2011 ABA Annual Meeting in Toronto, Canada.

“The Margaret Brent Awards recognize the remarkable achievements and accomplishments of distinguished women lawyers from around the country,” said Roberta D. Liebenberg, chair of the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession. “Our honorees have not only achieved great professional success, they have also blazed the trail for other women lawyers, and served as inspirational role models.”

Eleanor Dean (“Eldie”) Acheson, Paulette Brown, Karen J. Mathis and Col. Maritza Ryan will also receive the 2011 Margaret Brent Women Lawyers of Achievement Award. A sixth honoree, Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin of the Supreme Court of Canada, will receive a special award.

On Becoming a Judge

Tomljanovich, who currently serves on the board of directors of Medica, a non-profit that provides medical coverage, became the first woman assistant chief judge in Minnesota, and the second woman district court judge to serve in the state. She was also the first woman to serve as the state revisor of statutes, overseeing the publishing of Minnesota laws.

In 1977, Tomljanovich was appointed district court judge by Gov. Rudy Perpich, who was looking to diversify the bench.

“I was appointed with absolutely no courtroom experience,” Tomljanovich said. “My learning curve was steep at first. There just were not very many women who had been out of law school 20 years.”

In 1990, Tomljanovich was appointed to the Minnesota Supreme Court, where she was part of the nation’s first female majority on a state’s high court.

She founded the Minnesota Women Lawyers Association and served as chair of the Governor’s Judicial Selection Commission, where she called for appointments of women to the bench.

During her tenure, the number of women judges increased from 15 to 42.

While she was a trial judge, Tomljanovich noticed that to treat female and male cases equally was actually treating them unfairly.

“Most of the women I saw were victims of their own crimes,” Tomljanovich said. “Hardly ever did I see women benefit for themselves.”

Many women would commit crimes such as cashing fraudulent checks and giving the money directly to their boyfriends, or allowing men to stay in the home while receiving welfare, recalled Tomljanovich.

In those cases she saw that women had no support system and relied mostly on their boyfriends for stability.

As a result, Tomljanovich took a stand and supported women inmates and defendants, speaking out for their dignity and family needs.

Being a Woman in A Man’s Profession

Growing up, the only woman attorney Tomljanovich knew of was fictional ­– Portia Blake, from the 1940s radio show “Portia Faces Life.” The northern Minnesota native grew up poor in the rural part of the iron range. Tomljanovich’s family did not know any lawyers; Blake served as Tomljanovich’s role model and inspiration for going into law.

After two years at a community college, Tomljanovich, who was then 19, enrolled in St. Paul College of Law. She was the only woman in her class. In order to pay for school, she worked for an insurance company during the day and went to law school at night.

Tomljanovich’s classmates did not see her as competition. As a result, she did not find law school very difficult.

“Everybody knew that when I got out of law school I would not get the job they wanted,” Tomljanovich said. “I wouldn’t even get an interview for the job…because law firms just didn’t hire women.”

Like most women attorneys at the time, she applied for government jobs upon graduation because there was less discrimination in those positions, although they offered less pay than other legal jobs.

“Men didn’t find those jobs very attractive and so women could get them,” Tomljanovich said.

The revisors of statutes office drafted all of the legislation for the governor’s office, for legislators, and for state departments. They also published Minnesota statutes and session laws.

Tomljanovich was hired by the office to do indexing, which was considered a rather tedious job. The man who offered her the position said he did so because women did boring work well, Tomljanovich said.

However, she wasn’t good at indexing, so switched positions to one where she focused on contacting the legislators at the governor’s office.

Gender Discrimination

“I took chances because I had nothing to lose,” Tomljanovich said. “The expectations for women were so small that nobody would look at you and think that you failed – because you were expected to fail.”

For Tomljanovich, facing gender discrimination was a way of life.

She recalled her days working at the insurance company. “They made it very clear that I was welcome to stay there, but my chances of advancing were limited because I was a woman,” Tomljanovich said.

After graduation, Tomljanovich and her husband were invited to one of the private clubs in St. Paul, Minn., for a dinner for law students.

“I got all dressed up, walked through the front door and sat down in the lobby,” Tomljanovich said. “I was told women were not permitted to walk through the front door, there was a ladies’ entrance at the side and I was not permitted to sit in the lobby.”

She never got angry about the discrimination that she endured, but did tell people that she felt she was being treated unfairly.

“Probably not in the very early years, but later on I did – with a smile.” said Tomljanovich. “It’s really hard because you’re just a shrew if you get angry about it, so you have to smile a lot but be kind of firm.”

As time passed she became more vocal and expressed her many concerns.

“I wish I could share the award with all of those brave women who became lawyers when I became a lawyer back in 1955,” Tomljanovich said. “They were just so outside the profession and looking in, and they suffered so many indignities and never, never even talked about it, and I wish could share it with those people.”

Advice to women lawyers

“Support and encourage other women, celebrate their success, and never, never criticize another woman, there are plenty of men to do that,” Tomljanovich said.

Even today women have to work harder and be better, Tomljanovich said.

“They should understand there is going to be scrutiny about everything from who they sleep with to the length of their skirt,” Tomljanovich said. “I tell them to be themselves, work extra hard and just be better than the guys.”


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