Political Notes: LGBTQ groups seek judicial appointment for bi attorney Cleesattle after she lost her March San Diego judge race

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Monday April 29, 2024
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Several LGBTQ advocacy organizations have written to Governor Gavin Newsom's judicial appointments secretary urging the appointment of bi attorney Jodi Cleesattle to a seat on the San Diego Superior Court. Photo: Courtesy Jodi Cleesattle
Several LGBTQ advocacy organizations have written to Governor Gavin Newsom's judicial appointments secretary urging the appointment of bi attorney Jodi Cleesattle to a seat on the San Diego Superior Court. Photo: Courtesy Jodi Cleesattle

A quartet of LGBTQ groups is pressing Governor Gavin Newsom to appoint a bisexual attorney to the San Diego Superior Court after she lost her race on the March 5 primary ballot for a seat on the Southern California bench.

Jodi Cleesattle, a mom of two adult children, had sought the San Diego County court's Seat 41 last month. But she lost to her opponent, Brian Erickson, who netted nearly 54% of the vote.

In their letter dated April 22 to Luis Céspedes, who is Newsom's judicial appointments secretary, the leaders of the four LGBTQ organizations voiced their "robust support" for seeing Cleesattle receive a gubernatorial appointment. They noted that the San Diego County Bar Association's Judicial Election Evaluation Committee found her "exceptionally well qualified" to serve on the state's judiciary.

"Jodi Cleesattle's exemplary legal achievements and her profound dedication to justice mark her as the ideal candidate for a judgeship on the San Diego Superior Court," stated Janelle Perez, executive director of LPAC. "Her appointment would shatter long-standing barriers and ensure that the bench mirrors the diversity of the community it represents."

Joining Perez in signing the letter were National Center for Lesbian Rights Executive Director Imani Rupert Gordon, LGBTQ+ Victory Institute President and CEO Annise Parker, and Equality California Executive Director Tony Hoang.

Parker, who is retiring this year from her position, called on Newsom "to put his allyship into action — as he's done so often in the past — and appoint" Cleesattle.

"It's imperative that we actively and intentionally continue to diversify the ranks of the judiciary at all levels and continue to grow LGBTQ+ representation. The lived experience of judges matters, and we need more qualified LGBTQ+ jurists like Jodi to serve our communities," stated Parker.

The public endorsement of seeing Newsom seat Cleesattle on the San Diego County bench is an exceedingly rare instance of a public campaign being waged on behalf of an LGBTQ candidate. The judicial appointments process is usually conducted with an air of secrecy around it, and gubernatorial nominees are prohibited from talking about being selected until the governor's office makes an official announcement.

There are currently nine vacancies on the San Diego County Superior Court. Asked about the groups' letter in support of Cleesattle, Newsom's office did not directly address it in an emailed statement it sent April 26 to the Bay Area Reporter.

"The governor's judicial appointments bring a range of backgrounds and experiences to their roles and reflect the administration's continued commitment to building a bench that better represents the broad diversity of our state," wrote a spokesperson for the governor. "We're moving expeditiously to fill these vacancies and remain focused on appointing highly qualified, well-rounded candidates from a diverse and experienced pool of applicants."

Cleesattle told the B.A.R. she does have an application pending with the governor's judicial appointments secretary. She added that she is hopeful of being appointed to the San Diego bench.

"I'm very grateful for the support from LPAC, Equality California, the LGBTQ+ Victory Institute, and the National Center for Lesbian Rights," added Cleesattle. "They provided me with a copy of the letter they sent to the governor's office, and I am so humbled by their kind words. These groups do such amazing, important work in supporting LGBTQ+ candidates for elected and appointed offices."

A senior assistant attorney general with the California Department of Justice, where she has worked for 17 years, Cleesattle supervises the Tort and Condemnation Section statewide. At one time a newspaper reporter and magazine editor, Cleesattle graduated summa cum laude from American University's Washington College of Law.

She had worked at a Washington, D.C.-based national law firm early in her law career. A member of the National Association of Women Judges, Cleesattle serves on its LGBTQ+ Committee that is chaired by transgender Alameda County Superior Court Judge Victoria Kolakowski, the wife of Bay Area Reporter news editor Cynthia Laird.

Cleesattle is a current co-president of the Tom Homann LGBTQ+ Law Association. She had served on the board of the San Diego County Bar Association and is the current president of California Women Lawyers.

Her judicial candidacy had attracted considerable support. Gay San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria and lesbian state Senator Toni A. Atkins (D-San Diego), the immediate past president pro tempore of the Senate, were among her endorsers.

LPAC, which works to elect out women and nonbinary candidates to public office across the country, had also backed Cleesattle in the race. She was one of two out female judicial candidates it had endorsed in California.

The other, public defender April Van Dyke, won her March 5 race for Seat 1 on the Humboldt County Superior Court with 61% of the vote. According to LPAC, she is the first openly queer judge elected in the coastal county of Northern California.

As the Political Notes column reported March 1, the Humboldt bench was among the 41 superior courts without any LGBTQ judges as of December 31, according to the latest annual demographic report for the state judiciary. In San Diego, the report based on data through 2023 had nine LGBTQ judges on it.

Two identified as lesbians, six as gay, and one was bisexual. The names of the individual judges are not disclosed, as the information is collected confidentially, and not everyone who discloses their sexual orientation for the report is out publicly.

And some judges leave the question blank. Thirty members of the San Diego court did not provide their gender identity or sexual orientation for the 2023 report.

According to the letter sent by the four LGBTQ leaders, there are now 10 LGBTQ judges on the San Diego County court. It also claimed that Cleesattle would its first out bisexual jurist.

"Jodi Cleesattle stands out as a trailblazer, poised to become the first openly bisexual individual to serve on the Superior Court, joining a small but vital contingent of LGBTQ+ women on the bench," reads the letter. "Currently, the court boasts only 10 openly LGBTQ+ judges among its ranks, a figure that is disproportionately dominated by male appointees and fails to represent the true diversity of the community it serves."

The letter goes on to argue that "Ms. Cleesattle's appointment would not only shatter a significant barrier, but also send a powerful message about the inclusivity and progressiveness of our judiciary."

Based on a tally compiled by the B.A.R. there are at least 96 LGBTQ judges now serving on the California bench. The number will grow to 98 once Van Dyke and Mark Fickes, a gay man who won his March 5 race for an Alameda County Superior Court seat, take their oaths of office.

To bring the number of out judges closer to breaking the 100 mark, Newsom should appoint Cleesattle, stated Hoang with EQCA.

"Appointing an openly bisexual person to the court would help correct the staggering underrepresentation of the LGBTQ+ community on the bench — even in our high-equality Golden State — where more than 5% of residents identify as LGBTQ+, but fewer than 1% of sitting judges self-identify as part of this community," he noted.

Keep abreast of the latest LGBTQ political news by following the Political Notebook on Threads @ https://www.threads.net/@matthewbajko.

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

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