1st out justice joins CA Supreme Court

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Tuesday November 10, 2020
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Justice Martin Jenkins is California's first out LGBTQ Supreme Court member.
Justice Martin Jenkins is California's first out LGBTQ Supreme Court member.

With his confirmation Tuesday, Justice Martin Jenkins is the first out LGBTQ person serving on the California Supreme Court. The gay Oakland resident is also the third Black man to serve on the state's highest court.

All three West Coast states now have out justices on their state supreme courts. Jenkins is the sixth out person serving on a state's highest court, according to a database compiled by the LGBTQ Victory Fund.

"I think I have a perspective on cases and controversies that the high court deals with on a daily basis," said Jenkins, who received an evaluation of "exceptionally well qualified" to serve on the court. "You can have confidence of the buck stopping with me."

He told the court it took him four days to think about Newsom's offer to appoint him to the supreme court seat and agree to his "call of service" to become a judge again. As a man of faith, said Jenkins, he saw the appointment as "a calling" that he could not refuse.

"It is not about me elevating myself to some lofty perch," said Jenkins. "I thought I could do good work, quality work, and had a voice that could add to this discussion. Not better but different."

The Commission on Judicial Appointments unanimously confirmed the 66-year-old Jenkins to the bench, as expected, after receiving testimony about his qualifications during the November 10 hearing. The oversight body consists of Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, Attorney General Xavier Becerra, and senior Presiding Justice of the state Court of Appeal J. Anthony Kline.

Jenkins was known as "the James Brown of the judiciary," testified retired federal justice Thelton Eugene Henderson, who served alongside him as the senior judge of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. "The singer James Brown was known as the world's hardest working man in show business. Marty we felt was not the hardest working man in the judiciary but certainly the hardest working man on our court."

Kline called Jenkins "an impressive person" and an "extremely eloquent man" whose "voice is going to be needed" as the judiciary becomes even more politicized in today's age of highly partisan politics. And Becerra joked he was waiting for Jenkins to say, "I feel good" about his appointment.

In October, Governor Gavin Newsom had appointed Jenkins, his judicial appointments secretary since 2019, to fill the vacancy created by the retirement of Justice Ming W. Chin this summer. Jenkins is the first African American man to serve on the court in nearly three decades.

LGBTQ leaders had hailed Newsom's decision to appoint an out justice to the bench and were elated with Jenkins' confirmation. For years LGBTQ legal groups have sought to see an out person serving on the state's highest bench, and earlier this year LGBTQ lawmakers had also urged Newsom to name an LGBTQ person to succeed Chin.

Despite rumors of there being a closeted jurist on the Supreme Court of California, there has never been an out LGBTQ person serving on it, as the Bay Area Reporter has noted for years in stories about the demographic makeup of the Golden State's judiciary. All six of the current Supreme Court members identify as straight according to the annual reports that detail the sexual orientation and gender identity of the state's judges.

Until his appointment last month, Jenkins was not out publicly. He only came out as gay to family and friends late in life, which he addressed during a news conference with Newsom to announce his being tapped for the court seat.

"Anyone who knows me knows my identity has been as a gay man perhaps the greatest challenge of my life. And it has not been easy," said Jenkins.

Raised in San Francisco, Jenkins attended two Jesuit-run universities in the Bay Area, Santa Clara University and the University of San Francisco School of Law. He had signed a contract with the Seattle Seahawks football team but gave up being a professional sports player in order to pursue a career in the legal profession.

"Justice Martin Jenkins is a pioneer and trailblazer who epitomize the American belief in upward mobility and the fulfillment of the American Dream. He is the son of a janitor who worked at Coit Tower and Parkmerced Apartment Building in San Francisco," noted the Unity Bar Association of Sacramento County in a letter in support of his appointment co-signed by Sacramento's LGBTQ+ bar association SacLegal co-chairs Ashley Harvey and Andi Mudryk. "His family was poor but regardless of their financial situation, the values of hard work, honor, charity, and dignity were instilled in Justice Jenkins and his siblings by their father. Justice Jenkins has exemplified these virtues and values in his life and in his legal and judicial career. It is who he is and has been to the present day."

A Democrat like Newsom, Jenkins started out as a prosecutor for the Alameda County District Attorney's office from 1980 to 1983. He left to work in the U.S. Department of Justice during the Reagan administration as a trial attorney litigating civil rights cases involving police misconduct and cross burnings. He also worked to promote gender equality through cases on pregnancy-related leave and sex discrimination.

He was then hired as a trial attorney with the Pacific Bell Legal Department of San Francisco. In 1989 Jenkins became a judge on the Oakland Municipal Court and then on the Alameda County Superior Court. Former President Bill Clinton appointed him to the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California in 1997.

Jenkins then became an associate justice on the California Court of Appeal, First Appellate District in 2008. He stepped down last year when Newsom tapped him to offer guidance on filling judicial vacancies on the state's courts.

His longtime friend and colleague, first in the Alameda County D.A.'s office and later on the bench, Justice William R. McGuiness was one of the three people Jenkins asked to speak on his behalf.

McGuiness, the administrative presiding justice of the California Court of Appeal, division three, in San Francisco, California, called Jenkins "bright, indefatigable, hardworking," and someone who has "served with integrity and dignity." He added that Jenkins "has always applied the law dispassionately and evenhandedly."

Jenkins will take his oath of office at a later date. He will earn $261,949 a year as a member of the court.

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