California Justice Evans honored by East Bay attorney group

  • by Cynthia Laird, News Editor
  • Wednesday January 25, 2023
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California Supreme Court Associate Justice Kelli Evans spoke at the Alameda-Contra Costa Trial Lawyers Association dinner January 19. Photo: Oasii Lucero/Courtesy ACCTLA<br><br>
California Supreme Court Associate Justice Kelli Evans spoke at the Alameda-Contra Costa Trial Lawyers Association dinner January 19. Photo: Oasii Lucero/Courtesy ACCTLA

Both women have been in their positions on the California Supreme Court for less than a month, but Chief Justice Patricia Guerrero and Associate Justice Kelli Evans received standing ovations at the recent dinner of the Alameda-Contra Costa Trial Lawyers Association.

Guerrero, who previously served as an associate justice, was elevated by Governor Gavin Newsom last year due to the retirement of former chief justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye and sworn in January 2. The state's first Latina chief justice, she delivered the evening's keynote address.

Evans, the first queer Black woman on the court, was nominated by Newsom to succeed Guerrero and was also sworn in that day. Evans had previously served as a judge on the Alameda County Superior Court and was honored by the trial lawyers as one of two judges of the year at the January 19 gala, held at Bloc 15, an event space near Jack London Square.

Contra Costa County Superior Court Judge Leslie Landau was the other judge of the year recipient.

In a brief interview with the Bay Area Reporter, Evans said that her first couple of weeks on the high court has been "tremendous."

"I've been learning about the court from an insider perspective," she said, adding that she heard her first oral argument her first week. She said her judicial colleagues have been welcoming and are of the "highest caliber."

Attendees with whom the B.A.R. spoke praised Evans' appointment.

"Justice Evans is one of the most friendly, unassuming, and down-to-earth people I've ever met," said Alameda County Court Commissioner Bentrish Satarzadeh, a lesbian who was appointed to her position in 2018. "She really makes you feel like you're the most important person in the room."

"She will do a great service to our state," Satarzadeh added.

Kristin Rosi, a lesbian who's president of the International Association of LGBTQ+ Judges, called Evans' appointment "monumental."

"It's monumental to have our first lesbian supreme court justice be a Black woman," Rosi said. "She's a role model for law students, lawyers, and judges throughout the country."

Rosi added that Evans is a member of the LGBTQ+ judges organization.

Oakland attorney Casey Kaufman, a straight ally, said as a member of the trial lawyers association, he appreciated the diversity of the organization and of the area's bench officers.

"That's why I come and that's why I like this," he said of the event.

Jayme Walker, an ally who's a past president of the trial lawyers association, echoed Kaufman's comments.

"Our organization, one of the core values is to promote diversity," she said. "I was thrilled to see Kelli Evans appointed."

Alameda County Superior Court Judge Tara Desautels, who was the presiding judge and administered the oath of office to Evans when she began her tenure on the lower court in October 2021, said that Evans came highly recommended from Newsom's judicial appointments secretary.

"There was no assignment she wouldn't be willing to take on," Desautels said.

Prior to her appointment to the bench, Evans had served as Newsom's chief deputy legal affairs secretary. She had also worked for former state attorney general Xavier Becerra, now the U.S. health and human services secretary.

During her remarks, Evans said it was a special honor to be appointed.

"I will be forever grateful to be a judge in Alameda County," she said, even though hers was a short tenure.

Alameda County Superior Court Judge Elena Condes, a lesbian who won election to the bench in 2020, said that Evans "brings something unique" to her new role.

"I genuinely believe that all of us in Alameda County will benefit from her perspective and intellect on the bench," Condes said.

Contra Costa County Superior Court Judge Christopher Bowen, now the assistant presiding judge, summed up Evans' new position succinctly.

"It's exciting," he said.

Former chief justice praised

During her remarks, Guerrero praised Cantil-Sakauye.

"Tani Cantil-Sakauye was the first person of color to serve as chief justice," Guerrero said, adding that she had a "constant focus" on ensuring access to justice.

"She never lost that focus," Guerrero added.

She also acknowledged the late associate justice Cruz Reynoso, the first Latino to serve on the state's high court.

"I look forward to this challenge," Guerrero said of her new position.

Contra Costa judge honored

Landau, the Contra Costa judge who was recognized, has served on the bench for 20 years. During her law school years and early career, she said, she never had a woman or person of color as a law professor and there wasn't a woman on the U.S. Supreme Court until Sandra Day O'Connor was appointed by then-President Ronald Reagan in 1981.

"Things change," she said, adding that the best decision she ever made, aside from marrying her husband, was leaving her law practice for the bench.

"We make decisions that affect real people in real ways," she said of herself and her judicial colleagues.

She nodded to the diversity on the Contra Costa bench since she first began serving, noting that there are gay judges now.

She also commented on changes in the public's perception of judges.

"Judges used to be revered," she said. "Not so much anymore. Judges are now threatened and stalked."

Landau outlined her guiding principles: integrity matters, decency matters, and perspective matters. "Let's all do something," she said. "Let's resolve to do more."

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