Member Spotlight

February 2021 Spotlight: Judge Amy Sakalauskas (Nova Scotia)

Judge Amy Sakalauskas serves on the Provincial and Family Courts of Nova Scotia, Canada, and chairs our Membership Committee. We are happy to feature her in our member spotlight for February 2021.

Q: When did you become a judge and what was that process like?

I was appointed a judge on March 31, 2017. Judges of our Courts are appointed by the Governor in Council (the Lieutenant Governor) on the advice of the members of the Executive Council (the Cabinet), which considers the recommendations of the Minister of Justice. The Advisory Committee on Provincial Judicial Appointments assesses applicants, based on widely publicized criteria.  The Advisory Committee is made up of lawyers, judges, and members of the public. Applicants should generally have at least 10 years at the Bar. We apply in writing, and then some applicants are invited to attend an interview with the Committee.  The Committee provides qualified names to the Minister of Justice, who keeps a list from which to draw appointments. 

Our province reached gender parity on our Court and has made a commitment to respecting diversity in the appointment process. The process has also become increasingly transparent. More information on it is available online: 

https://www.novascotia.ca/just/court_services/_docs/guidelines_provincial_judicial_appts_september_2016.pdf 

Q: What motivated you to join the LGBTQ+ Judges?

I was involved in the Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Community (“SOGIC”) Section of the Canadian Bar Association as a lawyer, having Chaired it on a provincial and national level. I enjoyed being a part of the LGBTQ+ legal community and advocating for equality and diversity within the profession, the justice system, and the broader community. The International Association of LGBTQ+ Judges is the obvious fit as a judge, and I joined the year in was appointed. I first heard of it from our former President, Judge Gary Cohen, through the Canadian Bar Association when I presented him with the SOGIC Hero Award in 2012.

Q: What type of law did you practice before you became a judge?

I practiced family law, and exclusively child protection litigation for most of my time in practice.  

Q: What motivated you to become a judge?

I encouraged women and people from diverse backgrounds to apply to the Bench for years and reached a point in my career where I thought I had something to offer to the position. I was interested in using my skills and experiences to face a new challenge while continuing to serve the public.  

Q: What was your biggest challenge in becoming a judge?

Professionally, it was a steep learning curve after my appointment as I sit in criminal court and did not practice that area of law. Personally, the social changes were expected but took some time to get used to. I necessarily left behind some advocacy work in the community. My days are much different than they were as a lawyer. The phone does not ring nearly as much when there are no clients calling. I honestly do not even know my office telephone number.  Scheduling is always a challenge with young children, and I feel that more with this job, so I am thankful for understanding colleagues. 

Q: What is the importance of having openly LGBTQ+ judges serve on the bench?

The importance of this stretches to many levels. Most obviously, it is important for our Courts to reflect the diversity of the people we serve. We bring our experiences to the Bench and the broader we are in those, the better we can do our jobs. 

Being a judge can be quite insular and there is value in spending our days among colleagues who can offer varying perspectives. In addition to helping us to broaden our perspectives and apply that in our day-to-day decisions, it makes the lunchroom conversation much more interesting and educational. It can be difficult for us to ask questions or explore topics related to diversity and inclusivity, which makes having these opportunities close and safe even more important. 

I was somewhat uncomfortable with the attention paid to my sexual orientation when I was appointed. However, in the end I determined that if it helps other LGBTQ+ people, especially youth, see themselves in this role then I am happy to be “out” there, so to speak.

Q: How were you involved in the LGBTQ+ community prior to becoming a judge?

My involvement was extensive on a national level here in Canada, primarily through the Canadian Bar Association and related partnerships with other equality seeking groups.

Q: What have you experienced as a member of the LGBTQ+ Judges?

I have enjoyed meeting new people, learning about their experiences as judges, sharing resources, and working toward ensuring the justice system is welcoming and respectful to people of diverse backgrounds. Some of these people have become great friends.   

I had the pleasure of meeting our members in person at our annual meetings during Lavender Law in recent years. I cannot express enough how welcoming and warm this group is. The time we have spent together during the COVID-19 pandemic has been wonderful. We have been meeting virtually on Thursday evenings since the early days of this, and I look forward to it every week. We have learned about how different jurisdictions are navigating these trying times. We have also learned more about each other personally and professionally. 

I enjoy being a member so much that I recently agreed to chair our Membership Committee and to sit on the Education Committee.

Q: How are you handling court during the COVID-19 pandemic? 

We are fortunate here in Nova Scotia to have low case numbers. After a few months operating by phone for urgent matters only, we started hearing in-person trials and other matters again in July 2020. Most matters can proceed in person. Our Intake Court (bail and pre-trial matters) is done by phone and accused persons in custody are primarily by video. I also sit in the Domestic Violence Court and given its high numbers, we have been sitting virtually (Skype for Business, and now transitioning to Microsoft Teams).  We are navigating the need to only have people essential to the proceedings present in the Courthouse. We also have a 14-day quarantine period for anyone coming from out of province, which means out of province witnesses are often by video. All in all, we are moving along the best we can in these challenging times but will be dealing with the backlog for the foreseeable future. We cannot book as many trials on any given day given the limits on the number of people we can have in our courtrooms.

Q: What would you like us to know about you personally (hobbies, accomplishments, personal background)?

I have two daughters, ages 10 and 12, and they keep me happily busy outside the courtroom. I like to cook, run, spend quiet weekends at the cottage, and share fun times with good friends old and new. 

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