Panel confirms gay CA appellate presiding justice Martinez

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Tuesday May 14, 2024
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Justice Gonzalo Martinez spoke before he was sworn in as a presiding justice for the 2nd District California Court of Appeal. Photo: Screengrab<br>
Justice Gonzalo Martinez spoke before he was sworn in as a presiding justice for the 2nd District California Court of Appeal. Photo: Screengrab

Almost two decades after he received his law license in the Golden State, gay California Presiding Justice Gonzalo Martinez is now the fourth out jurist to preside over one of the state's appellate benches. He took his judicial oath Tuesday for the top position on the 2nd District Court of Appeal's Division Seven.

Martinez did so shortly after the Commission on Judicial Appointments unanimously confirmed him 3-0 to the administrative leadership role. He was the first of three gubernatorial judicial picks the oversight body considered Tuesday morning.

As the Bay Area Reporter's Political Notebook column first reported in March, Governor Gavin Newsom had sought Martinez's elevation into the judicial leadership vacancy created by the retirement of Presiding Justice Dennis M. Perluss. Martinez had been serving as Newsom's deputy judicial appointments secretary until the governor appointed him to fill a vacancy on the 2nd District appellate bench in early 2023.

The appellate court covers the counties of Los Angeles, Ventura, Santa Barbara, and San Luis Obispo. Each of its eight divisions has four justices who preside over cases assigned to it.

While he felt his job in the governor's office was the best ever, Martinez said being a justice on his appellate court "really takes the cake. I get to read, research, and speak with my colleagues about difficult concepts and reach consensus. It is an absolute pleasure to do what I do."

Martinez, 48, was admitted into the California Bar for licensed lawyers June 1, 2004. He and his husband, tax attorney Raul A. Escatel, had lived in San Francisco until they bought a home in the East Bay city of Piedmont in Alameda County in 2012.

Martinez thanked Escatel for supporting his "every endeavor" throughout his career. As for being a justice, Martinez said he keeps in mind that behind every case he adjudicates is a person.

"I try to remind myself of that when I am trying to get a case out," he said. "I will pause and think about whether what I am doing is the right thing under the circumstances and the law."

Among those who spoke on behalf of Martinez was Ana Matosantos, a lesbian who was the first openly gay person to direct the California Department of Finance. She worked in the gubernatorial administrations of Newsom, Jerry Brown, and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Of her former colleague Matosantos described Martinez as "measured, matter of fact, collaborative, and insightful." She credited him with improving the judicial appointment process so it was fairer to applicants of color and those from rural parts of the state.

"He is hardworking. He is grounded. He is humble. He is outstanding," said Matosantos.

His former colleague Gregg M. Adam, a partner at the law firm Messing Adam and Jasmine LLPMs, noted during his remarks how "unflappable" Martinez is in his temperament.

"He displays the utmost integrity. He epitomizes decency," said Adam, who also complimented Martinez as someone who "listens and he has a strong sense of humor. Something undoubtedly you will need as presiding justice."

Chairing the May 14 hearing was California Supreme Court Chief Justice Patricia Guerrero, who was joined on the commission by Attorney General Rob Bonta and Senior Presiding Justice Arthur Gilbert of the 2nd District Court of Appeal. In an April 29 letter to the commissioners, the Commission on Judicial Nominees Evaluation disclosed it had rated Martinez as "well qualified" to serve as a presiding justice.

"According to commission rules, that rating reflects the commission's determination that Justice Martinez possesses qualities and attributes indicative of a superior fitness to perform the appellate judicial function with a high degree of skill, effectiveness, and distinction, and is well qualified for the position of presiding justice on the appellate court," wrote JNE commission chair Chhaya Malik.

Of the 13 people contacted anonymously by the attorney general's office about Martinez's nomination, all commented that he was either "smart," "collaborative," "very hardworking," or "very friendly." None objected to seeing him be confirmed, though one fellow jurist he has worked with noted Martinez "is new and still learning his role as appellate justice" and stated they believe "the role of Presiding Justice may be challenging for him for the first few years, particularly with the backlog of pending cases."

Another jurist also pointed to Martinez's "very little experience as a justice," but they complemented his "strong work ethic" and noted he "works long hours." They, too, expressed concern "about the backlog of cases that Justice Martinez must address, which could be more challenging with the additional duties as Presiding Justice."

A third jurist said that "Martinez engaged in collaborative decision making, showed humility, and had appreciation for the significance of the legal issues in their cases that will benefit the court." They also felt "he absolutely, and without hesitation," should be confirmed.

Gilbert joked about how quickly Martinez was chosen to be a presiding justice, having just confirmed him as an appellate court jurist less than a year ago.

"You look familiar. Weren't you just here last week?" he quipped before noting that he had spoken to many of his colleagues on the appeals court who all remarked "how wonderful it is to work with you."

In her letter, Malik noted that "combined with his breadth of legal experience, Justice Martinez's unique background and identity as the son of immigrants, a first-generation college graduate, and an openly gay man would add a diverse and fresh perspective to the role of presiding justice."

In a letter of support from 15 legal associations for LGBTQ and people of color attorneys from across the state, leaders of the regional unity bars called Martinez "the epitome of the American Dream" and someone "eminently qualified" to be a presiding justice.

"It is undisputed that Justice Martinez is exceptionally thoughtful, compassionate, and an inspirational collegial leader. As Presiding Justice, he will enhance a spirit of cooperation that is expected from those who serve in leadership roles," they wrote.

Growing up

Martinez grew up the oldest of four children in a farm worker labor camp in the San Joaquin Valley, as his non-English speaking Mexican immigrant parents toiled in the nearby fields. As Malik noted in her letter, which she read at the confirmation hearing, the family was devastated by the death of one of his siblings when Martinez was a teen.

"Justice Martinez's humility and empathy derive from personal tragedy at a young age," noted Malik. "Justice Martinez lost his sister to leukemia in high school; and because his parents did not speak English, he translated for his parents regarding treatment options and worsening prognoses. These experiences inspired tenacity and grit to find the inner strength to pursue his education and to become the first of his family to attend college."

Martinez graduated from Harvard in 1998 and later earned his law degree from the Ivy League school in 2003. He worked at several large law firms in San Francisco before becoming a partner in the Appellate and Supreme Court Practice Group at Squire Patton Boggs from 2007 to 2017.

During 2015 and 2016 he chaired the LGBT Division of the Hispanic National Bar Association. In that capacity, Martinez organized the first nationwide LGBT Division Summit.

For two years Martinez served as a deputy solicitor general in the California Attorney General's Office. Martinez then returned to the law firm until joining Newsom's administration. He will now earn an annual salary of $272,902 as a presiding justice.

In a letter of support California Latino Judges Association President Thomas A. Delaney and Vice President Sergio C. Tapia II wrote, "by all accounts, Justice Martinez understands and respects people for who they are, not how others may perceive them. He has the emotional intelligence, the patience, and the interest in people that have served him very well throughout his career, including as Associate Justice. These experiences, these characteristics make him uniquely qualified to serve in the critically important leadership role of Presiding Justice in the Second District, Division Seven."

Other justices

The commission as expected also confirmed Tuesday Superior Court Judges Natalie P. Stone in Los Angeles and Tara Desautels in San Francisco as associate appellate justices. Newsom nominated Stone to fill Martinez's vacant seat on the 2nd Court of Appeal's Division Seven.

Desautels was nominated by the governor to fill the vacancy created on the 1st District Court of Appeal's Division Two by his elevation of lesbian Justice Therese Stewart as its presiding justice. The appellate court covers the Bay Area region and has five divisions with four justices each.

Serving as its administrative presiding justice is gay Justice Jim Humes. The other out presiding justice is Laurie M. Earl, a lesbian who presides over the 3rd District Court of Appeal.

Altogether there are six known out Court of Appeal members in the state. Gay Associate Justice David Rubin joined the 4th District Court of Appeal's Division One last year. Gay Associate Justice Luis A. Lavin serves with Martinez in the 2nd District on its Division Three bench.

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