Newsom names gay lawyer to SF court seat

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Friday August 28, 2020
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Russell S. Roeca was appointed as a San Francisco Superior Court judge Friday by Governor Gavin Newsom. Photo: Courtesy Governor's office
Russell S. Roeca was appointed as a San Francisco Superior Court judge Friday by Governor Gavin Newsom. Photo: Courtesy Governor's office

Governor Gavin Newsom on Friday is believed to have named his first LGBTQ appointment to a Superior Court judgeship.

Sixteen months after the retirement of lesbian San Francisco Superior Court Judge Carol C. Yaggy, Newsom has appointed a gay attorney and former board member of the Human Rights Campaign to her vacant seat on the local bench.

San Francisco resident Russell S. Roeca, 66, received the phone call Thursday, August 27, that he had been appointed to the court vacancy. He told the Bay Area Reporter Friday, August 28, after the governor's office officially announced the news that he expects to take his judicial oath of office by the end of September.

"I am very happy about that," Roeca said of his appointment, as he had earlier applied to be named a judge by former governor Jerry Brown.

San Francisco Superior Court Judge Joseph Quinn, a gay jurist tapped by Newsom last year as one of the people advising him on filling judicial vacancies, told the B.A.R. he was fairly certain that Roeca is the first LGBTQ person to be named a judge by the governor.

"Definitely the first in Northern California, but as far as I know the first in the state," said Quinn, specifying he was speaking on his own and not on behalf of the governor or the advisory committee.

Roeca was encouraged to reapply with Newsom, whom he had only met briefly when Newsom served as a San Francisco supervisor and then mayor. Roeca's nearly nine-year term as a city fire commissioner came to an end when Newsom became mayor in 2004.

He and his husband, Rich Vernon, were married that winter following Newsom's decision to buck state law and order city officials to marry same-sex couples. Their officiant turned out to be the wife of a city firefighter; the couple of 38 years had exchanged vows in a private ceremony they held in the 1980s with family and friends.

With that marriage later annulled by the state Supreme Court, Roeca and Vernon married a third time in the summer of 2008 following the California high court's ruling that same-sex couples had a legal right to marry. Roeca that year also chaired the Marriage Fairness Task Force that formed to oppose Proposition 8 on the November ballot and donated to the campaign to defeat the anti-marriage equality measure.

Following the passage of Prop 8, which overruled the state court and banned same-sex marriage in the Golden State, Roeca played a public role in the legal fight to overturn the voter-approved measure.

At the time he was president of the Bar Association of San Francisco, which in 2009 filed a friend of the court brief in opposition to Prop 8. And when the State Bar of California announced it would hold its convention that fall at a San Diego hotel owned by a major Prop 8 backer, Roeca announced he would not stay at the hotel or spend any money there, as the B.A.R. reported at the time.

It was par for the course for Roeca, who in 1996 was serving on the board of governors for the national LGBTQ rights group the Human Rights Campaign when it disinvited George Stephanopoulos, then an adviser to President Bill Clinton, to speak at its San Francisco fundraiser. The action was prompted by Clinton's announcement that May that he would sign federal legislation restricting same-sex marriage.

"I have no choice but to support Clinton for president, but we certainly don't need to have him send one of his people to dinner," Roeca told the San Francisco Chronicle. "San Francisco is a city where we had Willie Brown conducting a gay and lesbian marriage. We want someone who supports and respects us 100 percent."

Roeca told the B.A.R. Friday that he would leave his history of activism at the courthouse steps in order to be a fair and impartial jurist.

"I actually debated some of the anti-gay marriage folks on the radio. Now I have to be an independent jury and impartial and follow the rule of law," said Roeca. "I also bring who I am to the bench. It is a wonderful thing."

Roeca grew up in Hollywood, with a father who was a screenwriter and a mother who was an attorney.

"My parents threw me out of the closet. They wanted to make sure I lived a happy life," he recalled.

After he graduated UCLA in 1976, Roeca earned his J.D. in 1980 from UC Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco. He worked as an associate at a number of law firms in the 1980s and 1990s, becoming a partner at Hinshaw & Culbertson LLP in 1998. In 2000 he opened his own firm, Roeca Haas Montes De Oca LLP, with several other partners. He is certified by the State Bar of California as a specialist in Legal Malpractice Law and is also a certified mediator.

According to his bio on his firm's website, Roeca's "practice principally focuses upon professional liability of attorneys, real estate and healthcare professionals, as well as related commercial and business litigation." He represents attorneys in their efforts to recover fees or defend against liability lawsuits, and those facing disciplinary investigations and trials before the State Bar of California.

In addition to his one-year term as president of the Bar Association of San Francisco, Roeca served as a member of the Board of Governors of the State Bar of California from 2001 to 2004. He was also a member of the State Bar Committee on Professional Liability Insurance and served as co-chair from 2010 through 2012.

He is a longtime supporter of the AIDS Legal Referral Panel and the Volunteer Legal Services Program of BASF. His term on the HRC board spanned from 1994 until 1998, and Roeca is a longstanding member of Bay Area Lawyers for Individual Freedom, the local LGBTQ bar association.

The State Bar of California named Roeca the 2010 Myer J. Sankary Lawyer of the Year, Small & Solo Firms. In 2011 the Bench Bar Coalition named Roeca Bar Leader of the Year.

A Democrat, Roeca will earn $214,601 as a judge. He will be the seventh out member of the local bench, based on the latest LGBTQ demographic data on judges released earlier this year.

"It is something I have always wanted to do," said Roeca. "It is a wonderful way to take me to the end of my career. I imagine I will be a judge for the next 10 to 15 years; I am very young, so to speak."

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