Steven Kirkland is Harris County’s first out elected jurist.
By Brandon Wolf • Photos by Pam Francis
“Lawyers find answers for clients, judges find answers for society,” says newly elected Judge Steven Kirkland. A ballot victory last November has now put Kirkland in a position to find those answers for society. He also holds the distinction of being the first and only out-and-proud elected jurist in Harris County.
“I want to be a judge because I’ve always believed in justice,” Kirkland told OutSmart in a recent interview. “All my life I’ve stood up for what is right. I’ve told people what is wrong, and I’ve tried to change it.”
The 48-year-old Kirkland is a man of transparency who talks with equal ease about his male partner of 22 years, his recovery from alcoholism, and his passion for the judicial process. He comfortably blends a wry sense of humor with a deep understanding of law.
The son of a truck driver, Kirkland was born and reared in Abilene, Texas. “I got out as fast as I could,” he remembers. “I came to Houston and enrolled at Rice University. I picked a major, completed my coursework, and graduated with a bachelor of arts degree. I was quite involved in politics at Rice, but I was also an active alcoholic. I didn’t have a grip on my sexuality or my addiction.”
Participation in a twelve-step recovery program helped Kirkland get control of his alcoholism. “I have a genetic predisposition to addiction,” he says. “There is lots of it on both sides of the family. All of my brothers are addicts of some sort and are at various points of recovery.
“I had to get my triggers under control,” he reflects. “Being gay was a trigger for the disease. I had to get a grip on my sexuality before I could get a grip on my alcoholism. At age 23 I came out to my aunt and then to my parents. It was one of those late-night sobbing things at the kitchen table.”
Kirkland sobered up, started law school, and went to work as a paralegal for the now-defunct Texaco Corporation. He attended night school at the University of Houston’s Law Center and graduated with cum laude honors. Following graduation, Texaco promoted him to environmental litigator. He held that position for eight years, until a merger made his position redundant.
For the next few years, he worked as a plaintiff’s attorney for Harris County residents filing air pollution lawsuits. “This is not a good jurisdiction for plaintiffs,” he notes. “We weren’t able to be as successful as citizens needed us to be. But we got what we got at the time.”
Kirkland actively entered local politics when his friend Annise Parker asked him to manage her city council campaigns in 1991 and 1995. “Neither campaign was successful,” he states, “but we laid the groundwork for her 1997 victory.” Parker has since served three terms as a Houston City Council member and three terms as City Controller. She is currently a candidate in the Houston mayoral contest.
Kirkland’s path to the judiciary was paved in 2001, when his name was submitted to Mayor Lee Brown for consideration as a municipal judge. He was appointed to a part-time position, and later appointed as a full-time judge, then re-appointed by Mayor Bill White.
Campaigning for Elected Office
In late 2007, Kirkland announced his candidacy for the 215th District Civil Court. He won the Democratic primary against opponent Fred Cook in the spring of 2008. He then faced the challenge of running against 10-year incumbent Levi Benton, an African-American Republican.
No one ever asked about his sexual orientation during candidate forums, Kirkland says, “but there was probably a whisper campaign. I heard one report that a comment was made at a local meeting of the Greater Houston Pachyderm Club about ‘a guy who is running for office who’s never been married.’”
Kirkland neither shied away from nor made a point of his sexual orientation during the campaign. “When I walk into a gay fundraiser and kiss men hello, I don’t really have to talk about it,” he says. “However I did mention being gay when I was emphasizing the diversity of the Democratic ticket.”
Besides his personal qualifications for the job, Kirkland points out other factors that helped elect him last November. “George Bush’s unpopularity and Barack Obama’s popularity were important,” he says. “The Republican brand was tarnished both nationally and locally. And many voters detected a sense of entitlement on the part of some local Republican judges.”
On the evening of November 4, 2008, Kirkland led his opponent with 51.3 percent of the vote. As an openly gay candidate for judge, Kirkland also made history for the Houston GLBT community that night.
On January 1, 2009, Kirkland took the oath of office with his fellow judges-elect during a brief, quiet ceremony at the South Texas College of Law. On January 15, 2009, his investiture ceremony, the judicial equivalent of an inauguration, was held in the ceremonial courtroom of the Civil Courthouse.
Addressing those who gathered to celebrate, Kirkland declared, “We don’t make these journeys alone, and I would like to acknowledge a number of folks who have helped and supported me along the way. First is my life-partner, Mark. Mark is both my anchor and barometer, lifting me up and keeping me humble at the same time. He’s put up with many strange side trips in our journey together and many impositions, including attending and participating in this event on this, our 22nd anniversary.”
Houston’s Openly Gay Civil Court Judge
As a Texas District Civil Court Judge, Kirkland works with property-damage issues, personal-injury claims, breach-of-contract disputes, and other individual civil matters. He also presides over environmental litigation and suits between corporations. Kirkland feels that a judge needs to listen, to have a breadth of knowledge of the law, to be decisive, to be compassionate, and to be humble. For young people interested in a judicial career, he advises that they go to school, study hard, be connected, learn how to relate to people, exhibit interest in the judiciary, and work internships.
Asked how he likes being a judge, Kirkland responds, “It’s fun! I get to hear lots of stories and see the world through the different perspectives of many others.
“It’s a great intellectual challenge. That challenge is very stimulating, and when I meet it, it’s very rewarding.”
The Importance of Law
“The justice system serves public safety,” Kirkland says. “Our society has a place and a process to work out disputes, rather than fighting in the streets. I don’t judge people; I judge their actions and behavior. In my drinking days I violated the law and I was punished. We all make mistakes, but we can be bigger than our mistakes and get beyond them.”
Kirkland says that there is good reason to respect the judicial system. “One must understand that justice is a process. A lot of people are involved that bring the whole process together. It can take several years of work for some decisions. Even if one can’t appreciate a particular decision, they can appreciate the process.
“Broad-stroke criticisms usually don’t take into account the context of a decision,” Kirkland warns. “Don’t listen to Rush Limbaugh—or to a liberal equivalent. Evaluate what is really happening. Don’t just have a knee-jerk reaction.”
Kirkland dismisses the characterization of “activist judges” as partisan criticism. “A judge is only an activist if the ox being gored is one’s own,” he says dryly.
To Kill a Mockingbird is the only courtroom movie that Kirkland has ever seen. “The dramatics in courtroom movies are only for entertainment—a real courtroom is not that exciting,” he says. “Then again, sometimes it’s more exciting!”
Kirkland is not a fan of TV court coverage. “Television in a courtroom is a bad idea,” he says. “It affects how people behave. It impacts justice.”
He is a fan of the jury system and has great faith in it. “There may be people on juries who don’t listen to what the judge tells them to do,” he says, “but there is always someone on a jury who does, and they police the process.”
Supreme Court Justices Frankfurter, Cardoza, and Marshall are three famous jurists he admires. “I also admire the men who decided the Brown v. Board of Education suit,” he adds. “There are many great people who have been a part of judicial history.”
Gay Rights and the Law
“Gays need to be in every walk of life,” Kirkland asserts. “It’s important to be who we are wherever we are, then other people can learn to relate to us. Some people connect with me because I’m gay, others connect with me because I’m a recovered alcoholic. Or perhaps it’s just that I’m a Democrat. I put it all out there for people to decide.
“Being gay doesn’t have to hold a person back,” Kirkland says, “but it used to hold people back.” He remembers two distinct incidents from his campaign. “One young lawyer told me he wanted to run for a judgeship someday but was concerned because he was gay. Another man asked to be removed from my petition for candidacy when he found out I was gay. In both cases, people took the gay issue and limited lives. Until we get lots of gay people who are out in the open, this will continue.”
Kirkland looks at the United States Supreme Court and doesn’t see diversity. “We will change it,” he says with optimism, “but not overnight.” Will a future Supreme Court nominee be gay? Kirkland says there are good gay candidates that might be considered. “I know of a federal judge in Florida and a Supreme Court judge in Oregon,” he notes.
Would he answer a call to serve on the Court, if President Obama phoned and asked? “I’m available!” he says with a broad smile.
Brandon Wolf is a frequent contributor to OutSmart magazine. Wolf also profiled Judge Barbara Hartle for this issue.
WHAT THEY’RE SAYING
Longtime Houston activist Ray Hill feels a great sense of pride in Kirkland’s win. “When I began organizing for GLBT equality in 1966, the issue was one of criminal law because we could be sent to prison. Forty-three years later in 2003, that law was declared void when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Texas 21.06 sodomy statute. The election of Steve Kirkland to a district court in Harris County is just one indication of how far we have come in less than a generation.”
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Local gay attorney Mitchell Katine reflects on his own years of practicing civil law. “As an attorney who has practiced in the Harris County Civil District Courts for over 20 years, it is exciting that the citizens of Harris County have finally been able to focus on the merits and abilities of a judicial candidate, such as Judge Steven Kirkland, instead of who the candidate loves or wants to share his or her life with. Judge Kirkland will be an excellent example of a fine judge who also happens to be gay. Judge Kirkland has broken the GLBT barrier in Harris County’s civil judiciary. He is the first of many GLBT judges who will follow in his footsteps for many years to come. GLBT issues rarely come up in the courtroom, but with more and more GLBT individuals coming out, it is more likely that the sexual identity of the parties will play a role in some litigation, and Judge Kirkland will be very equipped to handle them with understanding, sensitivity, and good judgment.”
see also: Out on the Bench and In the Beginning