Panel confirms Evans, 1st queer CA supreme court justice

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Thursday November 10, 2022
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Alameda County Superior Court Judge Kelli Evans speaks at her confirmation hearing to the California Supreme Court. Photo: Screengrab
Alameda County Superior Court Judge Kelli Evans speaks at her confirmation hearing to the California Supreme Court. Photo: Screengrab

A panel that reviews gubernatorial judicial appointments has confirmed queer Alameda County Superior Court Judge Kelli Evans to the California Supreme Court. She is the first out LGBTQ woman and second out African American to serve on the state's highest bench.

"I recognize in moving from the trial court to our state's highest court I have a steep learning curve, and it is one I would relish to climb," said Evans, 53, during her confirmation hearing Thursday.

A Black married mother, Evans doubles out representation on the judicial body, as she will serve alongside Associate Justice Martin J. Jenkins, a gay Black man appointed by Governor Gavin Newsom two years ago. He won his judicial retention election on the November 8 general election ballot.

Newsom nominated Evans, who lives in Oakland, to the supreme court seat in August. She is filling the vacancy created by the elevation of Associate Justice Patricia Guerrero to succeed Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, who is retiring when her current term of office ends January 2. Guerrero won her retention race to be chief justice Tuesday.

The three-member Commission on Judicial Appointments Thursday unanimously confirmed Evans to the court. Along with Cantil-Sakauye, it consisted of Attorney General Rob Bonta and Manuel A. Ramirez, the presiding justice of the 4th District, Division Two of the California Courts of Appeal. (Ramirez also won his retention race Tuesday, and Bonta won his election to a full four-year term.)

Adam Hofman, chair of the State Bar Commission on Judicial Nominees, told the review panel that his commission had evaluated Evans in October and found her to be "well qualified for service on the California Supreme Court."

He added that the body believes Evans will "make an outstanding associate justice."

Prior to casting his vote, Bonta told Evans that her serving on the state's highest court is a "fitting next step in a very distinguished career."

Last year, Newsom had appointed Evans to fill a vacancy on the East Bay trial court. She had been serving as the governor's chief deputy legal affairs secretary. She initially was brought on as the Newsom's deputy legal affairs secretary for criminal justice at the start of his first term in 2019.

Evans 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.

Christy Lopez, a Georgetown University Law School professor, worked with Evans at the federal justice department and as a co-monitor of the Oakland Police Department. The two women have known each other for decades and went into business together to launch the LLP.

"I can personally attest Kelli is brilliant and compassionate. She is fair-minded and unflappable," said Lopez in testifying on behalf of Evans' confirmation at Thursday's hearing. "She will not only be a historic supreme court justice but a phenomenal one."

Catherine E. Lhamon, Newsom's former legal affairs secretary, had worked with Evans as her chief deputy. One of the legal issues they tackled together was defending the governor's response to the COVID pandemic, which resulted in 80 lawsuits.

"None of which we lost," noted Lhamon, adding of Evans, "she was a spectacular colleague to me and the governor and our full team in the hardest legal time in 10 years. I know, therefore, she will be a superb colleague on this court."

Ironically, Evans "is a giant germophobe," Lhamon pointed out, joking that when she started work as a trial judge last year, she did so "figuratively bathed in Purell in court."

Having been raised in public housing by her grandmother in Denver, Colorado, who did not have the same educational opportunities or civil rights as her granddaughter, Evans joins the supreme court, said Lhamon, "with the knowledge she is her and our ancestors' dream."

She embodies not only her grandmother's "hopes and aspirations," added Lhamon, but also her belief that in America all people should be treated equally. "To be very clear, Kelli Evans loves the law. Kelli loves every aspect of the law."

Ramirez also noted how Evans' grandmother repeatedly is mentioned in the letters of support people sent the confirmation panel on behalf of Evans.

"I know she is not with us, in one sense, but your grandmother, I think, saw something very special in you at a very young age. I would suppose that inspired her as well as eventually inspired you," he said. "So I can imagine your grandmother someplace in heaven and her angel wings are just flapping one-hundred miles an hour with joy and happiness and pride she shares today with you and your family."

Author and educator Shane Safir, a longtime colleague and close friend of Evans, noted how their families have long celebrated Thanksgiving together. She was "the older sister" she always wanted, said Safir.

"Kelli is possessed of that rarest combination of the sharpest intellect coupled with the warmest and deepest heart," said Safir, adding that in terms of her jurisprudence, "she has everything California needs to ensure our judicial system stays aligned with our espoused values."

Saying she was "deeply humbled" by Newsom's nomination of her to the supreme court, Evans thanked her soon-to-be colleagues for their "kind and warm connections" in meeting with her in recent months. She especially praised Associate Justice Carol Corrigan for her "very delicious" cookies.

"You have all made me even more excited, should I be confirmed, with the prospect of serving with such exceptional jurists and such exceptional colleagues," said Evans, who pledged, "if I am confirmed this morning, I will do my absolute best to serve the beautiful people of our state to the best of my abilities."

Joining Evans at the hearing was her wife and "best friend" of more than 30 years, Terri Shaw; their daughter Kaden, who flew home from college, and numerous family members and friends. She noted that her grandmother was "incredibly important to me and the entire family."

When she buried her grandmother, Evans put her original law degree in the casket because "it belonged to her," she explained. At the hearing Thursday, Evans said she "definitely" felt her grandmother's presence in the room.

"I wouldn't have been a lawyer; I wouldn't have been a judge; and today I wouldn't have been a justice if it weren't for my grandmother," said Evans. "She would have understood, as I do, the law is so much more than an esoteric ivory tower exercise ... it is about real people and real communities, that is what the law is about."

As her friend and former colleague Lhamon had earlier said, Evans agreed she was her "ancestors' wildest dreams."

"We are a direct manifestation of her deliberate intentional actions to make sure we had opportunities she was denied, that so many people were denied," said Evans. "This day belongs to her."

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