CA Gov. Newsom names 1st queer female judge to state's supreme court

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday August 10, 2022
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Alameda County Superior Court Judge Kelli Evans was nominated to be an associate justice on the California Supreme Court. Photo: Courtesy Governor's Office<br>
Alameda County Superior Court Judge Kelli Evans was nominated to be an associate justice on the California Supreme Court. Photo: Courtesy Governor's Office

Governor Gavin Newsom has nominated queer Alameda County Superior Court Judge Kelli Evans to the state's Supreme Court. If confirmed, she will be the first out LGBTQ woman and second out African American to serve on it.

A Black married mother, Evans would double out representation on the state's highest court, as Newsom in 2020 named Martin J. Jenkins, a gay Black man, as an associate justice. He was confirmed November 10 that year.

Newsom had appointed Evans to the superior court in the East Bay last year. Evans and her wife, Terri Shaw, have a daughter in college and live in Oakland.

Wednesday, August 10, Newsom announced his nomination of Evans to serve as an associate justice on the California Supreme Court to fill the vacancy being created by his elevating Supreme Court Associate Justice Patricia Guerrero to be its next chief justice. Guerrero is set to succeed Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, who is retiring when her current term of office ends January 2.

A first-generation Californian, Guerrero was the first Latina to serve on the California Supreme Court and, if confirmed, will be the first Latina to serve as its chief justice. Curiously, Newsom's announcement of the dual judicial picks made no mention of the historic significance of Evans being the first out LGBTQ female jurist to likely serve on the state's highest bench.

In praising Evans, Newsom noted her lifelong dedication "to helping all Californians" access justice equally.

"Raised by her grandmother in public housing, Judge Evans was inspired from a young age to find ways to help expand justice and opportunity for everyone, especially marginalized and vulnerable communities," stated Newsom. "I have seen firsthand her commitment to the highest ideals of public service, and her passion to protect and advance civil rights and liberties for all Californians. I have no doubt that her exemplary talent, wide-ranging knowledge and experience, strong moral compass, and work ethic will make her an outstanding Supreme Court justice."

In the statement released by the governor's office, Evans said she was "truly honored" by the opportunity to serve on the state's highest court.

"I have worked my entire career to promote equality and access to justice and to protect the rights of some of society's most disenfranchised members. If confirmed, I look forward to furthering our state's work to ensure equal justice under the law for all Californians," stated Evans.

Tony Hoang, executive director of statewide LGBTQ advocacy organization Equality California, hailed the news in a statement.

"Representation is power, and it's critical in our collective fight for full, lived equality. Governor Newsom's historic appointment of Judge Evans ensures that California's highest court better reflects the diversity of our state and sends an important message to the rest of the country at a time when LGBTQ+ people, women and communities of color are under attack," stated Hoang. "Judge Evans is an outstanding, highly qualified jurist, and we are confident she will continue to uphold and advance equal justice under the law for all Californians."

Lesbian Senate President pro Tempore Toni G. Atkins (D-San Diego) called the two judicial nominees "a tandem punch of both legal prowess and inspiration for California." Of Evans in particular, having her serve on the supreme court would be "a boon for our state," stated Atkins.

"Her experience as an Alameda County Superior Court judge, combined with her legal expertise while working for an array of governmental entities, lends perspective that will undoubtedly resonate in her work on the Court. And as a member of the LGBTQ community, her ascension sends an affirming and encouraging message to our youth," Atkins stated. "The nomination of these two incredible women within the legal community maintains an incredible women-majority on the Court, and is proof positive of the power of hard work, tenacity, and perseverance. We live in the most diverse state in the nation, and it is heartening that the bench of the California Supreme Court reflects that, and us."

State Supreme Court Justice Patricia Guerrero has been nominated as the new chief justice. Photo: Courtesy Governor's Office  

New chief justice nominated
As for Guerrero, 50, of Coronado, Newsom said she "has established herself as a widely respected jurist with a formidable intellect and command of the law and deep commitment to equal justice and public service. A first-generation Californian from the Imperial Valley, Justice Guerrero broke barriers as California's first Latina Supreme Court Justice, enriching our state's highest court with her insights and deep understanding of the real-world impacts of the Court's decisions in the lives of everyday Californians."

He added that he thanked her for being willing "to step into this role and am confident that the people of California will continue to be well served by her leadership for years to come."

Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the UC Berkeley School of Law, called both nominees "historic appointments" who "are impeccably qualified. They will lead the California Supreme Court in using the California Constitution and California law to advance freedom and equality."

Prior to joining the judicial bench Evans, 53, had been serving as Newsom's chief deputy legal affairs secretary and initially was brought on as the governor's deputy legal affairs secretary for criminal justice when Newsom took his oath of office in 2019. She had served as a special assistant to former state attorney general Xavier Becerra from 2017 to 2019.

She had left her position as senior director for the administration of justice at the California State Bar to join Becerra's staff. Evans attended Stanford University then graduated from the UC Davis School of Law. In 1995, she went to work as an assistant public defender at the Sacramento County Public Defender's office. She also served as an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California from 1995 to 1998, when she became a senior trial attorney in the civil rights division of the U.S. Department of Justice.

From 2001 to 2004 Evans was an associate at Relman and Associates then was a partner at Independent Assessment & Monitoring LLP from 2006 to 2010. She returned to the ACLU as an associate director until 2013. Evans also was a member of federal court-appointed monitoring teams for the Oakland and Cleveland police departments.

"Judge Kelli Evans is a brilliant choice to serve as associate justice on the California Supreme Court. Besides being an amazingly accomplished lawyer and judge, she has devoted her professional life — and her very heart and soul — to social justice for all and is ideally suited for service on the state's highest court. I cannot imagine anybody better than Judge Evans to fill the vacancy," stated Kevin Johnson, dean of the UC Davis School of Law.

Guerrero grew up in the Imperial Valley with immigrant parents from Mexico. She earned a Juris Doctor degree from Stanford Law School and was hired as an assistant U.S. attorney at the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of California from 2002 to 2003.

She went on to become a partner at a private law firm and then became a San Diego County Superior Court judge from 2013 to 2017. Then Guerrero joined the Fourth District Court of Appeal, Division One as an associate justice until being confirmed to the state's supreme court this year and administered her oath of office by Newsom.

"I am humbled by this nomination to lead our state's Supreme Court and thank the governor for entrusting me with this honor," stated Guerrero. "If confirmed, I look forward to continuing the strides the court has made under Chief Justice Cantil-Sakauye to expand equal access to justice and create a fairer justice system for all Californians."

The State Bar's Commission on Judicial Nominees Evaluation will now review both nominations, and the Commission on Judicial Appointments will hold a hearing to vote on confirming each appointee. The Commission on Judicial Appointments consists of Cantil-Sakauye, Attorney General Rob Bonta and Senior Presiding Justice of the state Court of Appeal Manuel Ramirez.

The three-member appointing body announced August 11 it will hold a public hearing to consider Guerrero's confirmation at 10 a.m. August 26 in the Supreme Court Courtroom at 455 Golden Gate Avenue in San Francisco. The hearing will also be webcast live on the California Courts Newsroom website.

Guerrero's serving as chief justice will also go before voters for confirmation on the November 8 general election ballot.

UPDATED 8/10/22 with comments from Senate President pro Tempore Toni G. Atkins.

UPDATED 8/11/22 with confirmation hearing date for Guerrero.

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