Political Notes: Majority of CA trial courts lack LGBTQ judges

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Thursday March 2, 2023
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Marin County Superior Court, located in the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Marin County Civic Center in San Rafael, continues to have no out LGBTQ judges, according to demographic data released March 1 by the Judicial Council of California. Photo: Courtesy Marin County Superior Court
Marin County Superior Court, located in the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Marin County Civic Center in San Rafael, continues to have no out LGBTQ judges, according to demographic data released March 1 by the Judicial Council of California. Photo: Courtesy Marin County Superior Court

For more than a decade California's courts have been required to release sexual orientation and gender identity demographic data on judges in an effort to help diversify the bench. Yet, an overwhelming majority of state trial courts continue to have no known LGBTQ judges serving on them.

According to the latest report on the makeup of the Golden State's judiciary, just 17 out of the 58 trial courts, one for each county in California, reported having at least one LGBTQ jurist serving on it. Of those, 10 reported having two or fewer out judges as of December 31, 2022.

In total, there were 77 trial court judges who self-identified as being members of the LGBTQ community last year, with a third of them serving on just one trial court. The SOGI data is annually released March 1, along with information about the gender, ethnicity, disability, and veteran status of the state's judges.

Yet, because the judges are not required to report the information, the survey data doesn't paint a totally accurate picture for how many LGBTQ judges are serving on the state bench, from the trial courts up to the California Supreme Court. As the Bay Area Reporter has often found in covering the data over the last 12 years, the surveys often undercount LGBTQ jurists.

Plus, of the 1,693 respondents to the 2022 report, 336 justices did not provide their sexual orientation or gender identity. Of those, 323 were trial court judges, with the rest serving on appellate courts.

While the latest report counted 80 LGBTQ judges in California last year, there were at least 84 known out jurists serving on the bench in 2022 based on figures compiled by the B.A.R. And that number has now climbed in recent months to at least 87 due to the appointments of LGBTQ judges made by Governor Gavin Newsom.

For instance, the official tally released Wednesday by the Judicial Council of California continues to show there being just two LGBTQ appellate justices even though there are actually five known to be serving on appeals courts across the state.

There are two in the First District, which includes the Bay Area counties of Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, Napa, San Francisco, San Mateo, Solano, and Sonoma. There are one each in the Second, Third, and Fourth appellate districts.

The SOGI data for the California Supreme Court, which counted one gay member, is also now outdated due to the swearing in of Associate Justice Kelli Evans, a Black queer woman, in January. Two of the court's seven justices are now from the LGBTQ community.

Patent attorney Michael Nguyen, a gay San Francisco resident, told the B.A.R. people have asked him about becoming a judge, but it is not something he is looking to do at the moment. He knows firsthand how difficult it can be to recruit LGBTQ people to apply for judicial vacancies or seek election to a court seat from his time as a board member of the Bay Area's LGBTQ bar association, from which he stepped down in 2021.

"It definitely deserves more intentionality and really trying to figure out who might be interested. What I have learned is you really have to ask people several times, especially in our minority communities," said Nguyen, currently a member of the San Francisco Human Rights Commission's LGBTQI+ Advisory Committee. "I know it might take at least five to seven tries. If people don't see themselves in the world that is reflecting back to them then they don't see themselves on the bench or never considered it."

Gay San Jose resident Ken Yeager has worked to bring more attention toward the LGBTQ judges who serve in the South Bay via profiles on the Queer Silicon Valley website and by holding public forums with them. He told the B.A.R. he isn't surprised that most trial courts in the state lack an out LGBTQ judge, noting that several local judges who are lesbian have turned down his entreaties about being profiled on the online historical archive he maintains.

"I have gotten the sense that judges don't always want people to know their sexual orientation, and in conservative counties it is probably even more likely the case," said Yeager, a former Santa Clara County supervisor and San Jose city councilmember.

Ironically, a judicial applicant choosing to self-disclose their LGBTQ status may bring them more attention from the state's governor and the judicial appointments secretary during the selection process to fill a court vacancy, noted Yeager. Going forward, he hopes more LGBTQ organizations in counties without an LGBTQ judge focus more attention on the issue. They may already have an out jurist, he added, but no one may have bothered to ask them to talk about it publicly.

"I hope some gay organizations in those counties maybe inquire and want to give some publicity to those people as an example this is a career," said Yeager. "You can be a lawyer and being gay is not a handicap, and if you ultimately want to be a judge, you can."

Data from governor's office, judicial commission

According to additional data released Wednesday by Newsom's office, he has appointed 288 people to the state's courts as governor, including 119 in 2022, from a pool of 1,364 applicants. Last year, 34 LGBTQ people applied, and 10 received judicial appointments from the governor, who is now in the first year of his second term.

In 2021, Newsom had named seven LGBTQ judicial appointees out of the 19 who had applied. During his first four-year gubernatorial term, Newsom named 24 LGBTQ people to the bench from the 110 out applicants who had sought a judicial appointment.

The Commission on Judicial Nominees Evaluation 2022 Statewide Demographics Report also released March 1 revealed it had reviewed 173 candidates' qualifications for judicial office last year. Nineteen were known to be from the LGBTQ community, though none identified as transgender. One LGBTQ applicant was rated as being not qualified.

The review body had found two bisexual women to be well qualified and a third to be qualified to serve as judges. It also deemed three lesbians to be exceptionally well qualified, two to be well qualified, and one to be qualified.

Two gay male applicants were deemed exceptionally well qualified, and three were declared well qualified. Four gay applicants were found to be qualified.

Most LGBTQ judges serve on a handful of trial courts

The Los Angeles County Superior Court continues to have the most out jurists of the state's 58 county court districts, with at least 28 LGBTQ judges serving on it as of December 31 based on the latest data. The total doesn't include lesbian Judge Diane Goodman, who was appointed to a vacancy in late December by Newsom and took her judicial oath earlier this year.

The Alameda County bench once again had the second-highest number at 10. It also continued to have the most LGBTQ judges of any county in Northern California, according to the 2022 survey data.

San Diego County once again had the third most LGBTQ jurists of any of the state's trial courts, with nine as of the end of last year. Its total increased by two from 2021.

San Francisco's trial court continued to lag behind in fourth place with six out jurists per the 2022 report. The local bench has recently seen a change in the makeup of its LGBTQ members.

Longtime lesbian judge Gail Dekreon retired on January 31, the legal newspaper the Daily Journal reported in early February. Her leaving the bench came nearly a month after gay Judge Michael Rhoads took his oath of office, having been appointed by Newsom in late December to fill the vacancy created when lesbian judge Angela M. Bradstreet retired in early 2022.

The latest report also showed there again being four LGBTQ judges in Santa Clara County and two in San Mateo County, although according to Queer Silicon Valley there are at least nine out members of the bench in the two South Bay counties.

Contra Costa County also continues to have two LGBTQ judges, based on the 2022 data. In the rest of the nine-county Bay Area, the superior courts in Marin, Napa, Solano and Sonoma counties continued to have no LGBTQ judges on the bench in 2022 per the judicial demographic data.

The number of LGBTQ jurists serving in San Bernardino County dropped from five in 2021 to four last year. The report once again showed there being three on the Orange County Superior Court, while earlier this year lesbian Judge Julie Swain took her oath of office to serve on it following her appointment by Newsom late last year.

The number of out judges in Sacramento doubled to two last year due to the appointment by Newsom of transgender Judge Andi Mudryk. The only other trans jurist in the state is Judge Victoria Kolakowski, who serves on the Alameda County bench and is married to B.A.R. news editor Cynthia Laird.

The local benches in El Dorado, Fresno, Imperial, Kings, Riverside, San Joaquin, and Santa Cruz continue to each have one out judge, per the latest data. As of the end of 2022, the official data showed the California judiciary included 30 lesbian jurists, 44 who identified as gay, and four bisexuals in addition to the two trans judges.

Keep abreast of the latest LGBTQ political news by following the Political Notebook on Twitter @ http://twitter.com/politicalnotes

Got a tip on LGBTQ politics? Call Matthew S. Bajko at (415) 829-8836 or e-mail [email protected]

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