SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — A rare atmosphere of joy and celebration pervaded the courtroom in the Earl Warren Building on Tuesday, as Justice Martin Jenkins was unanimously confirmed to the California Supreme Court by the Commission on Judicial Appointments.
Jenkins will bring compassion, humility, and ethics to his new role, his supporters told the commission. He also brings decades of judicial experience, and a reputation for unflagging diligence.
“His colleagues fondly referred to him, as did I, as the James Brown of the judiciary,” said former federal colleague, retired U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson. “The singer James Brown was known as the hardest working man in showbiz. And Marty, we felt, was certainly the hardest working man on our court.”
"He surely must be the most judicially experienced nominee in all of state history,” said longtime colleague retired Justice William McGuiness.
Jenkins, a San Francisco native, will be the third African American man, and the first openly gay man, to ever serve on the state’s highest court.
The commission comprising Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, state Attorney General Xavier Becerra and First Appellate District Presiding Justice J. Anthony Kline voted 3-0 to approve his nomination.
Jenkins fills the seat vacated by Justice Ming Chin, who retired in August after a tenure that lasted 24 years.
Like his predecessor, Jenkins received a Jesuit education. He graduated from Santa Clara University in 1977 and University of San Francisco School of Law in 1980. In the years between college and law school, Jenkins had a short stint as a rookie cornerback with the Seattle Seahawks.
After law school, he worked as a prosecutor with the Alameda County District Attorney’s office, where he met McGuiness.
He was hired after then-District Attorney D. Lowell Jensen launched a groundbreaking effort to diversify the office by actively recruiting at law schools.
“The Alameda County District Attorney’s office was the first in the country to interview at law schools to diversify that office in the late 70s. It was unheard of and without that program I wouldn't be here today,” Jenkins said.
He later worked as a civil rights lawyer for the U.S. Department of Justice, prosecuting police misconduct and hate crimes by white supremacist groups.
In 1989, Governor George Deukmejian appointed him to the municipal bench in Oakland, then he came to the Alameda County Superior Court following an appointment by Governor Pete Wilson. In 1992 President Bill Clinton made him a federal judge of the Northern District of California, a position he held until 2008 when he returned to the state court as a justice with the First District Court of Appeal. He was appointed by former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.
"At the time such change in career direction from the federal court to the state court was considered by some federal judges of the northern district to be not only unconventional but controversial,” McGuiness said.
“Personally it was speculated that I may have played a role in conspiring to lure if not steal him from the federal bench. I deny that allegation. It was never proven,” he joked. “And the fact that now Justice Jenkins was appointed to division three of the first district where I then served as the presiding justice and was assigned to the chambers immediately next to mine are circumstantial at best.”
Commission member Kline, another of Jenkins’ judicial colleagues, remarked that Jenkins’ nomination comes at a volatile time for judicial independence.
“There has never been a time like today in which the rule of law has been challenged at the highest levels of our government,” he observed. "There has to be at the highest judicial level in this state a voice, an articulate voice, because I think we're going to see challenges to the independence of not just the trial courts in elections, but the politicization of the appellate courts.”
He told Jenkins, “You’re extremely eloquent. You have a voice and we're approaching a time when that voice is going to be needed.”
Jenkins and his colleagues made it clear that he didn’t take the Supreme Court position for plaudits or prestige. McGuiness said Jenkins’ credibility and the respect he’s earned from his community comes not just from his intellect and accomplishments, but his authenticity and “living his truth about being African American and gay.”
“Justice Martin Jenkins knows and will not forget what it means to struggle and be an outsider,” McGuiness said.
Jenkins said it took him nearly four days to accept after Governor Newsom informed him that he intended to nominate him to the highest court in the state.
In keeping with the new standard for communication in the Covid-19 era, Jenkins took Newsom’s call over Zoom. When it was over, he looked out the window, and could see from over the City Hall rotunda, the hospital where he was born.
“I had a rare opportunity not many people get, to see just how far I had come in that very moment, from that hospital to the nomination that brings me before you today,” Jenkins said Tuesday.
“I took the time to ensure myself that this wasn't about me. It's not about me elevating myself to some lofty perch. I felt that I could do good work, quality work, that I had a voice to add to the discussion, that might be absent, not better, just different. And ultimately, being a man of faith I felt this was a calling and I've never once refused the call of service.”
Indeed, Jenkins spent less time on his own achievements at Tuesday’s hearing than he did thanking his colleagues, mentors and family members.
“The speakers were extraordinary and in some ways hard to listen to, because who can be that good, really? The fact is, they are that good,” Jenkins said.
He saved his partner Sydney Shand, for last.
“I've gotten to do everything that I wanted to in my life, everything. Not when I wanted to but in God's time I've got to do it. But the one thing that eluded me was a relationship, in part because of the struggle I had in accepting who I was,” Jenkins said. “And I had so many friends who have wonderful, loving, caring supportive relationships. There was a period in time when I said myself 'Well, I've been blessed abundantly. That's just not going to happen for me.’”
“And then Sydney showed up,” he added. “And he is kind, and he is loving and he is supportive. He provides my life with a level of balance and comfort and now I understand what people who are in loving relationships have. I've experienced it. Thank you Sydney.”
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.