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April 18, 2014

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Judge was once hell on wheels

Hard hits of roller derby league prepared her well for field of mostly men

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Leila Navidi

District Court Judge Valorie Vega was as tough on the roller derby rink as she is in the courtroom. She played for a Los Angeles team even after moving to Vegas.

Judge Valorie Vega’s chambers are decorated with the sort of Father’s Day-necktie gifts of the legal world: globes, scales and gavels. And then there’s the framed green and yellow roller derby uniform. Hers.

Los Angeles Thunderbirds, No. 7.

She started playing while attending law school in 1980.

“It was good money. It was real good money,” Vega says. “It helped pay for a lot of those big, fat law books I had to buy.”

And the night-and-weekend schedule didn’t interfere with her classes at USC, although there was that time she took a toss over the rails that broke her arm and dislocated her shoulder during final exams. She took one while loaded on rhino-grade painkillers. When she left the classroom, she had to ask a friend if she had handed in her blue exam book.

“I still don’t have a memory of taking that test,” Vega says.

“It was my second-highest grade in law school.”

After graduation in 1982, she moved to Las Vegas to clerk for a judge. (Also around that time, her team members were hired as extras for an episode of “Fantasy Island.” Herve Villechaize was, Vega said, very excited to have his picture taken with them.)

The Nevada bar was different then. For one thing, there were a lot fewer lawyers — fewer than 500. (Today there are more than 11,000 lawyers in Nevada.) For another, most of them were men, often men wearing polyester Western leisure suits with pistols stuck in their boots.

Vega says she never had too much trouble with sexism or people making fun of her hobby, possibly because she applied the same attitude of hard work and fearlessness that she had needed as a tiny-framed jammer dodging through lines of blockers to score.

Vega gave up roller derby in 1986 when she was a deputy district attorney and was being assigned Monday morning felony trials. She couldn’t find time for both trial preparation and road games — and when you live in Las Vegas but play for a Los Angeles team, they’re all road games. Plus, to be frank, the law was interfering with her practice time. Three years later she became Las Vegas’ only female municipal judge.

Today Vega is a district court judge and she still skates. And now she roller blades, too, usually along beach boardwalks in Venice Beach, San Diego and Santa Barbara.

“Now I’m going to be dreaming all day, smelling that salt air ...”

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