Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 3 / 18 January 2018

Political Notebook: Nation's first out lesbian judge retires from bench


Judge Mary Morgan retired last week. Photo: Rick Gerharter
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Having broken through a lavender ceiling in the judicial system three decades ago, San Francisco Superior Court Judge Mary Morgan is ready to enjoy her well-earned retirement.

When Governor Jerry Brown, during his first term in Sacramento, tapped Morgan in 1981 for a vacancy on what was then called the San Francisco Municipal Court, she became the first out lesbian judge in the nation's history. Her swearing-in followed Brown's appointments of two gay men to courts in Los Angeles, making Morgan the third known LGBT judicial figure in the state at the time.

"It was a real privilege ... it has been an experience that has greatly enriched my life," said Morgan. "As for the small part I was able to play in paving the way for greater visibility of LGBT people, that has been very gratifying."

Her retirement last week follows that of Donna Hitchens , another pioneering lesbian member of the San Francisco court. In 1990 Hitchens became the first out person in the United States to be elected a judge. She left the bench last November but continues to hear cases on a part-time basis.

Morgan told the Bay Area Reporter this week that she had decided several years ago that once she turned 65 and reached retirement age, she would leave the bench. Her last day was Thursday, March 4.

So far, she said, not having to go to the courthouse weekday mornings has been an easy adjustment to make.

"I have loved my job; it has been fascinating and it has been a privilege. Now, I have many other things I would like do," said Morgan.

At the top of her list is competing in the Tiburon Sprint Triathlon, which includes a half-mile swim, this summer. She is working with a coach to prepare for her first attempt at swimming in the bay's frigid waters.

"This is a new thing for me," said Morgan, who earned her J.D. from the New York University School of Law.

Later this year Morgan and her partner, Heather Furmidge , plan to spend November and December traveling through Southeast Asia. Practicing Buddhists – Morgan serves on the board of the San Francisco Zen Center – the couple has over the years traveled extensively throughout the region, visiting such countries as Bhutan and Laos and Thailand and China.

"I think, originally, we were drawn there due to the curiosity to see societies that were primarily Buddhist. After that, the countries are so beautiful and so different. The people are incredibly lovely and generous," said Morgan.

During her tenure on the Municipal Court, Morgan served terms as the presiding judge and assistant presiding judge. She also served as dean and assistant dean of the California Judicial College; and was a faculty member at the California Judges Association, California Judicial College, California Continuing Judicial Education and the National Association of Women Judges.

Her joining the court caused quite a stir back then, recalled Morgan, who had applied in 1980 for a judicial seat.

"When I was appointed, for many, many people it was a scandal. I received mail from all kinds of people, which ran the gamut from hate mail to religious tracts with people praying for me that somehow I would see the light," said Morgan. "In addition, there was much laudatory praise and people thankful for having a role model."

In 1993 she stepped down from the court to move to Washington, D.C. where she was director of the domestic violence legal clinic at American University's Washington College of Law. Her then-partner, former San Francisco Supervisor Roberta Achtenberg, had been appointed by President Bill Clinton to be assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The following year Morgan joined the Clinton administration as deputy assistant attorney general in the Office of Policy Development at the U.S. Department of Justice where she worked under then-Attorney General Janet Reno.

In 2003 then-Governor Gray Davis appointed Morgan to the reconstituted San Francisco Superior Court bench. A proponent of collaborative justice, Morgan earned accolades for her oversight of the Behavioral Health Court, which was launched in 2002 in order to better address the increasing numbers of mentally ill defendants cycling through the criminal justice system.

The BHC directs seriously mentally ill adult offenders to community mental health programs, where they receive continuous and consistent community mental health treatment. The court's work on decreasing recidivism among mentally ill offenders led it to being honored in 2008 with the Council on Mentally Ill Offenders Best Practices Award.

More recently, Morgan received a Heroes and Hearts Award from the San Francisco General Hospital Foundation for her achievements in advocating for the better treatment of people with mental illness and influencing statewide practices to improve California's mental health system.

In announcing Morgan's retirement last week, Presiding Judge Katherine Feinstein stated that Morgan leaves behind "a hole that will not be easily filled."

"Not only will we all miss the tremendous energy she devoted to ensuring that the most needy of our society were served in a humane manner, while the community was safe from their criminal behaviors, she inspired all of us to think more deeply and creatively about the roles we play individually and collectively in the justice system," stated Feinstein. "As both a judge and as a person, Mary was smart, tireless, creative and brave."

It will be up to Brown, now in his third term as governor, to appoint someone to serve out the remainder of Morgan's term, which was not set to expire until December 31, 2016. It is the only vacancy at the moment on the San Francisco court.

Whoever takes over the seat would not stand for election for a full-term on the court until June 2014. Asked if she wanted to see Brown select an LGBT nominee, Morgan said she didn't believe it was important for him to do so.

"That is an interesting question. It does not feel like a pressing issue because there are approximately 10 lesbian or gay judges and commissioners currently on the court," said Morgan.

 Last year Morgan joined with the majority of her out colleagues on the bench to support the retention campaign of Judge Richard Ulmer, a straight man appointed to fill a vacancy by former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. After placing second in the June primary, Ulmer went on to defeat Michael Nava , an openly gay lawyer, in the November runoff.

The race became highly contentious, a rarity for judicial retention campaigns. It also raised the question of whether the LGBT community should reject judges based solely on their sexual orientation or political affiliation. [Ulmer had been a Republican but switched to decline-to-state after moving to San Francisco following his court appointment.]

Morgan was a vocal defender of Ulmer's ability as a judge. The same criteria she asked voters to judge Ulmer on she hopes Brown follows in selecting her successor.

"What I think is really important is the governor appoint someone to the bench who will pay attention to our issues; who thinks diversity is very important; and who will think outside the box in terms of providing leadership for the court in initiating innovative programs," said Morgan.

Asked this week if he was interested in being named to Morgan's seat on the bench, Nava told the B.A.R. he was not. His attention these days is focused on reviewing death penalty appeals for the state Supreme Court and finishing his latest crime novel.

Low set to announce Assembly bid

Openly gay Campbell City Councilman Evan Low is expected to announce he is running for a South Bay Assembly seat tonight (Thursday, March 10) during an appearance before local business leaders.

Low will address the Campbell Chamber of Commerce at 5 p.m. where he has promised to "make a major announcement." A press advisory released earlier in the week said four mayors of Silicon Valley cities as well as San Jose's vice mayor would be joining Low at the appearance.

Low did not respond to the B.A.R. 's question if the announcement would be the start of his campaign for a state legislative seat.

Last month the Political Notebook reported that Low has made no secret of his desire to seek the Assembly seat now held by Jim Beall (D-San Jose), who will be termed out of office next year. As currently drawn, Beall's 24th Assembly District includes sections of San Jose, the cities of Saratoga and Campbell, and portions of Santa Clara and Los Gatos.

Should Low jump into the race as expected, he will be running against openly gay Santa Clara County Supervisor Ken Yeager . The former San Jose councilman, who is a political mentor to Low, created his exploratory committee last month.

Also kicking off her bid for an Assembly seat tonight is longtime Los Angeles LGBT activist Torie Osborn. The one-time mayoral aide is seeking the 41st Assembly District seat.

And out in Stockton, lesbian City Councilwoman Susan Talamantes Eggman is eyeing a run for the 17th Assembly District seat. The current officeholder, Assemblywoman Cathleen Galgiani (D-Livingston), will be termed out next year. Should Eggman win the seat, the Latina lawmaker would be the first out woman of color to serve in the state Legislature.

Web Extra: For more queer political news, be sure to check Monday mornings around 10 a.m. for Political Notes, the notebook's online companion. This week's column features an interview with out freshman Assemblyman Rich Gordon on the state's fiscal crisis.

Keep abreast of the latest LGBT political news by following the Political Notebook on Twitter @

Got a tip on LGBT politics? Call Matthew S. Bajko at (415) 861-5019 or e-mail mailto:.

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