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AUBURN — One January evening, tension was in the air as a family of four watched a live-streamed city council meeting. Kristin Garland, the mother of this family had been nominated as Auburn's new part-time associate city judge. Now it was time for council to vote on her confirmation. 

The first vote, a "no," from the five-person council was an unsettling blow. But before the mayor cast the last vote, Garland had secured three votes — a majority. 

Garland's confirmation had lit a fuse, causing her kids to explode as they screamed and jumped up and down. After 226 years as a municipality, Auburn had named its first female city judge. 

Celebrating would have to be put on hold though, as Garland was set to start her new job at 8 a.m. the next morning. Later that week, she would attend a week-long program at the New York State Judicial Institute at Pace University in preparation for the new gig. 

At the Judicial Institute, Garland met fellow newly-appointed judges. The class was a diverse one, comprised of a wide age range. Nearly half of the class was made of women, too. 

"It was really great to go down there and see people that had just been appointed and to see that they too were nervous and anxious," Garland said.

Garland is a courtroom veteran with 11 years of experience. But even for her, it took some time getting accustomed to leading a courtroom.

"When everybody turns and looks at you the first time you sit on the bench, you're kind of like 'Why is everybody looking at me?' And then you realize, 'It's me, I have to call the case.'" 

While at the Judicial Institute Garland learned how to manage different types of cases — including small claims, commercial claims and even dangerous dog hearings. 

Despite what looks like a heavy workload, Garland looks toward the silver lining: another opportunity to learn. 

"Seeing different types of cases let's us get to see more people in the community and help more people in the community," Garland said. "It's given me an opportunity to study and dig into the law again." 

Just like anyone, Garland has faced obstacles throughout her career. But some of these obstacles are unlikely faced by men. Even now as a judge, Garland said that sometimes it's hard to be heard as a woman. 

Early in her career as an attorney, Garland was told by a judge that the shoes she wore were distracting. He told her not to wear them again in the courtroom. Garland said instances like this were common at the time. 

"While it was embarrassing to me, I didn't feel like that was wrong of him to say that to me," Garland said. "Now, cut to 12 years later, I would definitely go to the court administrator and say this judge said this. That's the difference of a decade and a half of change."

For both young men and women, Garland believes today's world can be exciting, as a new generation is exposed to a society overcoming gender bias. As for the young women who continue to encounter bias, "keep going," says Garland. "Keep moving forward, and don't let people tell you that you can't"

Because she's worked with a local firm and has represented a number of clients in the area, Garland isn't allowed to lead a case involving any of her clients from the past two years, according to judicial ethics. Garland also isn't allowed to to take on cases involving her husband, Nate Garland, who serves as an assistant corporation counsel for Auburn. When Nate Garland does appear in housing code cases, Auburn's other judge, Judge David Thurston, takes over. Kristen Garland returns the favor when Thurston's wife, who heads the Auburn Housing Authority appears in court. 

"There's only so many attorneys. There's only so many people in our legal community, and you're going to have conflicts come up, especially when people have worked with firms," Kristen Garland said.  

At the time of Garland's confirmation, Auburn Councilor James Giannettino said the Garlands' relationship was "irrelevant" to the council's decision. "I don't think it's fair to deny someone a job based on their spouse's job," he said. 

For a lack of a better term, Garland hasn't taken on any "blockbuster" cases yet. But if you ask her, she'll say that every case holds importance. 

"You're deciding whether or not if someone is going to spend a part of their life in jail, and that's a big deal," she said. "People don't come to court because they've had something wonderful happen to them — that's just me. Every one that comes to court has a problem of some sort that they're looking to us to decide on."

At the end of her six-year term, Garland said she hopes female judges are more common. In New York, as of February, there are 25 counties that lack female judges, according to New York Law Journal. While Garland is now Auburn's first female judge, Cayuga County still hasn't had a woman on the bench. 

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Staff writer Dan Orzechowski can be reached at (315) 282-2239 or dan.orzechowski@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter @OrzechowskiDan.

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City government reporter