Real Property Law

Potentially Historic Appointment of First Openly Gay California Supreme Court Justice

By Victor Rocha, Esq.

On October 5, 2020, Governor Gavin Newsom nominated Justice Martin Jenkins (Ret.) to serve on the California Supreme Court. If confirmed, Justice Jenkins would be the first openly gay Justice, and only the third African American man, to serve in the 170 year old history of the California Supreme Court.

In a video statement, Gov. Newsom said, “Of the duties granted to governors by our State Constitution, few are more consequential than nominating a new justice to the State Supreme Court. The California Supreme Court is the good and great guardian, not just our laws and constitution, but our State’s deeply imbedded and unwavering dedication to the principle of equal justice under the law. Today, I am honored to add another distinguished name to that long legacy of jurisprudence, Judge Martin Jenkins, both a product and a protector of the California dream.”  Later in the statement Gov. Newsom added that, “as a lawyer and a judge, he has built an irreproachable reputation as a person of fortitude and fairness, a man of inner strength, grace and compassion, who knows that despite what the declaration says, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, are not simply inalienable, they must be relentlessly protected, and defended.”

Justice Jenkins obtained his undergraduate degree from Santa Clara University in 1977 and his law degree from University of San Francisco in 1980. In his career, Justice Jenkins worked as a prosecutor for the Alameda County District Attorney as well as the U.S. Attorney’s Civil Rights Division. In 1989 he was appointed to the Alameda County Municipal Court by Governor Deukmejian and in 1995 to the Alameda County Superior Court by Governor Pete Wilson. In 1997, he was appointed to the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California by President Bill Clinton and then served from 2008 to 2019 as an Associate Justice on the California Court of Appeal, First Appellate District. After retiring from the bench, Justice Jenkins served as Judicial Appointments Secretary where he helped Governor Newsom build a judiciary that is more diverse and reflective of the people of California.

Also appearing in the same video statement, Justice Jenkins thanked Governor Newsom for the appointment and went on to say that he would be remiss if he did not acknowledge that he would be the third African American man to serve on the California Supreme Court. Justice Jenkins further said he remembers well when the first African American man, Justice Wiley Manuel, was appointed in 1977 and then followed by Justice Allen Broussard (appointed in 1981) and that he would not be here today without their support and mentorship.

However, Justice Jenkins reserved his most powerful words when he discussed the fact that he would be the first openly gay Justice. On this, Justice Jenkins said the following:

“Anyone who knows me knows my identify has been as a gay man, perhaps the greatest challenge of my life, and it has not been easy, but I want to say today, to those young people who may be watching…that I am not here in spite of the struggle, I am here because of the struggle. It is deep in my character, afforded me sensibilities about the world, and about people who are not so willing to accept that people can love differently than they do, but never less love, sincerely and genuinely and affectively. I want these young people to know, that living a life of authenticity, is the greatest gift you can give yourself, and if you do that, you too will find yourself in a position where people see you, they really see you, and who you are, your authentic self…”

The nomination comes a few days into LGBT History Month which observes the history of the LGBT community. The month of October is used because the first 2 LGBT civil rights marches in Washington DC were in October (1979 and 1987) and also because National Coming Out Day is on October 11. As of today, there are currently 11 openly gay Justices serving in State Supreme Courts across the country. Those states include Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nevada, Oregon, New York, Vermont and Washington with 2 Justices. The first openly gay State Supreme Court Justice was Rives Kistler appointed to the Oregon Supreme Court in 2003.

The nomination of Justice Jenkins will be reviewed by the State Bar’s Commission on Judicial Nominees Evaluation and confirmed by the Commission of Judicial Appointments consisting of Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, Attorney General Xavier Becerra, and Presiding Justice of the State Court of Appeal J. Anthony Kline. The nomination is intended to fill the vacancy created by the retirement of Justice Ming W. Chin who announced his retirement early in the year. The Office of the Governor’s website has more information on Justice Jenkin’s personal and professional background which is an excellent read.

The nomination was announced the week that all article submissions were due for this issue of the E-News and therefore time was limited in drafting this article. We encourage everyone reading this to submit any articles sharing their thoughts on the significance of this appointment. The most interesting articles will be published in upcoming issues of the e-News. Looking forward to your amazing articles.            

Victor Rocha, Esq. is an Advisor on the Real Property Law Section Executive Committee and also serves on its Diversity Committee.

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