California Supreme Court welcomes 1st queer woman

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Monday January 2, 2023
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Associate Justice Kelli Evans, middle, is the first queer woman of color on the California Supreme Court. Photo: Courtesy California Supreme Court<br><br><br>
Associate Justice Kelli Evans, middle, is the first queer woman of color on the California Supreme Court. Photo: Courtesy California Supreme Court

From humble beginnings growing up in a Denver public housing development reared by her grandmother with limited means, Alameda County Superior Court Judge Kelli Evans is now making history as the first queer woman of color to serve on the Golden State's highest court. Governor Gavin Newsom Monday afternoon administered her oath of office as an associate justice on the California Supreme Court.

Evan's January 2 robing ceremony, which was not open to the public, took place at 1:15 p.m. inside the Stanley Mosk Library and Courts Building in downtown Sacramento. Although it wasn't livestreamed, video of the event was posted shortly afterward to the court's website.

"The California Supreme Court is a beacon, and I am immensely humbled and proud to be joining the court today. I pledge to serve the people of our beautiful state to the very best of my abilities, doing all I can to help fulfill the promise of equal justice under the law," said Evans, 53, at the event.

Her UC Davis law school classmate, Stephanie Finelli, recalled during the swearing-in event that "what stood out to us in law school about Kelli was her commitment to justice. She went to law school to make the legal system work for everyone....and especially those the system had traditionally overlooked, or even mistreated."

Newsom also swore in Associate Justice Patricia Guerrero as the 29th chief justice of California, having won her retention race for the position on the November 8 ballot. Guerrero succeeds Tani Cantil-Sakauye, whose retirement became official Monday, to become the first Latina presiding over the state supreme court.

"I look forward to protecting the rights of all Californians and ensuring equal access to justice," said Guerrero. "Just as I did not get here alone, I do not move forward alone, and I look forward to embarking on this exciting new journey with family, friends, and colleagues."

The governor had nominated the two women for the judicial posts last summer. A Black married mother, Evans doubles out representation on the judicial body. Associate Justice Martin J. Jenkins, a gay Black man, was appointed by Newsom two years ago and won his judicial retention election last month.

Evans, who lives in Oakland with her wife, Terri Shaw, fills the vacancy created by the elevation of Guerrero to chief justice. An avid learner as a child, Evans graduated from Stanford University and then from the UC Davis School of Law.

In her application for the supreme court seat, Evans listed "a steadfast commitment to fairness and impartiality," "a perpetual learning mindset" and "a clarity of expression" as the three most important qualities required for such a position. She noted she possessed a mindset for learning even at an early age.

"I was an early and voracious reader and the more I learned, the more I wanted to know about the world around me," wrote Evans. "My learning mindset is one of the reasons that my legal career has been so satisfying and so diverse. I have not hesitated to jump into different practice areas requiring me to learn entirely new areas of law."

That legal career took her from the Sacramento County public defender's office to the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California and the civil rights division of the U.S. Department of Justice. She has worked in private practice and as a federally appointed monitor of the Oakland and Cleveland police departments.

"Kelli certainly has a lot of knowledge as a lawyer, but she also has great judgment in how she applies the combination of her legal, management and human knowledge to a situation," wrote ACLU of Northern California Executive Director Abdi Soltani in his letter in support of Evan's supreme court confirmation. "And in her entire time, while I saw her state her disagreements and hold her ground, I found her to be incredibly independent, measured and thoughtful in how she conducted herself, even when under tremendous pressure."

Evans also worked for the California State Bar and as a special assistant to former state attorney general Xavier Becerra. Newsom hired her as his deputy legal affairs secretary for criminal justice at the start of his first term in 2019.

Among her proudest accomplishments is her role in crafting and implementing Newsom's 2019 death penalty moratorium, which she noted has been upheld by the courts. It also repealed the state's lethal injection regulations and dismantled the state's death chambers.

"Since California has the largest death row in the western hemisphere, the moratorium has had a significant ripple effect. It has provided a justification for prosecutors to take death off of the table in pending cases and, more notably, has inspired several elected District Attorneys to announce that they no longer plan to seek the death penalty and will work to resentence individuals with existing death sentences," noted Evans. "The moratorium is proof that the justice system is able to hold people who commit serious crimes accountable without using an irreversible sanction that has been rejected by most countries across the globe."

Evans went on to be Newsom's chief deputy legal affairs secretary until her gubernatorial appointment in 2021 to fill a vacancy on the East Bay trial court. Her time on the local bench led Evans to be named the Alameda County Judge of the Year for 2022 by the Alameda-Contra Costa Trial Lawyers Association.

Last year, Evans also received the Stanford Pride Trailblazer Award, given out by the South Bay university's LGBTQ group for outstanding contributions during a legal career. In their letter supporting Evans' confirmation as a supreme court associate justice, the leaders of diverse legal associations in six counties from across California contended she would assure all Californians have equal access to justice and serve as a role model for those who've felt slighted by the judicial system.

"As a brilliant, Black, gay, woman who has excelled despite adversity beginning in childhood, Judge Evans is someone literally anyone can look to, see something of themselves in her, and greatly admire," wrote the leaders of the Orange County, Sacramento, Central Valley, Merced County, Kern County, and Yolo County Unity Bars. "Her confirmation will demonstrate to our next generation of leaders that one does not need to grow up with all the traditional advantages to succeed and be of great service to one's community."

Evans embodies "the American Dream of having the opportunity to advance as far as one's talent and hard work will take them," the Unity Bars leaders added. "Her life story proves that dream is alive and well, even if inequities in our society make that dream more accessible to some and not others."

Tony Hoang, a gay man who is executive director of the statewide LGBTQ advocacy organization Equality California, echoed that contention in his own letter supporting Evans' confirmation.

"Beyond her legal qualifications and stellar professional reputation is Judge Evans' lived experience as a Black lesbian woman raised in public housing and what her service on the bench would mean to our state," wrote Hoang.

Throughout her career Evans has served on the boards of a number of LGBTQ judicial groups and other organizations that fight for LGBTQ rights. Among them were the Bay Area Lawyers for Individual Freedom, the local LGBTQ bar association; DOJ Pride, the LGBT employee association of the U.S. Department of Justice; the ACLU and the National Center for Lesbian Rights. She also belonged to the International Association of LGBTQ Judges and Equal Rights Advocates, on whose board Evans also once served.

The breadth of her professional background, and the experience she gained from her time on the local court, have made her uniquely qualified, argued Evans, to now preside on one of the most closely watched state supreme courts in the country.

"In working to reform troubled institutions, my work has taken me from small, rural jails in the heart of Appalachia, to large women's prisons, to metropolitan police departments, to meetings with FBI agents and the Attorney General of the United States," noted Evans. "I am equally comfortable interacting with pro se litigants, diverse community members, youth, government officials, and attorneys as I am in interacting with police officers, people in prison, crime survivors, or the victims of alleged unconstitutional conduct."

As a member of the supreme court, Evans said she relishes having the opportunity not only "to play a role in helping to decide important questions of law and help ensure the orderly development of law in California," but also in assisting with "efforts to improve the justice system" in the state.

"When I left the bench, I would hope to be able to say that I played a meaningful role in improving the justice system and making it more accessible to all Californians," wrote Evans.

UPDATED 1/3/2023 with quotes from the robing ceremony.

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