Editorial: Evans' identity is important

  • by BAR Editorial Board
  • Wednesday August 17, 2022
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California Supreme Court nominee Judge Kelli Evans. Photo: Courtesy Governor's office via LA Blade
California Supreme Court nominee Judge Kelli Evans. Photo: Courtesy Governor's office via LA Blade

Governor Gavin Newsom made history last week with his nominations of two women to serve on the state Supreme Court. One, Patricia Guerrero, is already a justice on the high court and Newsom elevated her to chief justice, replacing Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye when she retires in early January. Kelli Evans, currently a judge on the Alameda County Superior Court, was nominated to fill Guerrero's seat as an associate justice. Evans would make history if she is confirmed by the Commission on Judicial Appointments — she would be the first openly queer Black woman to serve on the California Supreme Court. As we reported last week, it was curious that Newsom's news release on the two appointments omitted that fact.

Two years ago, Newsom made history when he nominated Martin Jenkins, a gay Black man and retired state appellate justice, as the first openly LGBTQ person to serve on the state Supreme Court. In his announcement back then, Newsom hailed Jenkins' appointment and the fact that he is gay. "Justice Jenkins would be the first openly gay and third Black man to serve on the California Supreme Court," Newsom's 2020 release stated. It's too bad that Newsom didn't note the historic nature with his pick of Evans.

During her swearing-in ceremony on the Alameda bench in October 2021, Evans said that she has been "fortunate in my career to be surrounded by insightful friends." She also recalled her late grandmother, who only had an eighth grade education. She purchased "on an installment plan," Evans noted, a set of encyclopedias that Evans read when she was growing up.

Evans also referenced her grandmother in a story three years ago in the Los Angeles Blade about Newsom's LGBTQ staff members. Evans married Terri Shaw, her college sweetheart, and she told the LGBTQ newspaper that she has "deep appreciation to my grandmother who raised me and to all those who came before us who made it possible for a queer Black girl from the projects to be where I am today."

Prior to being appointed to the local bench, Evans served as Newsom's chief deputy legal affairs secretary where she helped shape the state's moratorium on capital punishment and advised Newsom and executive agencies on myriad issues in administrative proceedings and in state and federal trial and appellate courts. Before that, she worked for former state attorney general Xavier Becerra. Evans has the qualifications for a seat on the state's highest court, regardless of how she identifies.

However, we know that representation matters, and to have an out queer Black woman on the state Supreme Court is indeed something to celebrate. Evans' nomination — and expected confirmation — sends a message to LGBTQ people whether they are young or old. It's notice that the highest levels of state government are indeed changing and becoming more reflective of the diverse population that makes California such a great state.

State Senate President pro Tempore Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) marked the historic nature of Evans' nomination. "Judge Kelli Evans' impending appointment to serve as associate justice on the California Supreme Court also is a boon for our state," Atkins said. "Her experience as an Alameda County Superior Court judge, combined with her legal expertise while working for an array of governmental entities, lends perspective that will undoubtedly resonate in her work on the Court. And as a member of the LGBTQ community, her ascension sends an affirming and encouraging message to our youth."

We expect Evans and Guerrero to be confirmed by the judicial commission, allowing Newsom to further cement his legacy in terms of judicial appointments. Earlier this year he tapped Andi Mudryk as the first appointed transgender judge in the state, making her the second trans judge in California, as Alameda County Superior Court Judge Victoria Kolakowski was elected to the bench in 2010. Since taking office in 2019, Newsom has appointed LGBTQ people to the bench at the trial and appellate levels. For the state Supreme Court to soon have two out Black justices is a milestone. Newsom missed an important opportunity to highlight the historic nature of Evans' nomination. We think he should have done so.

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