(CN) — California Governor Gavin Newsom nominated former First Appellate District Justice Martin Jenkins to the state’s highest court, marking nearly three decades since a Black man has sat on the California Supreme Court bench.
If approved, Jenkins, 66, would be the high court’s first openly gay justice. He would fill the seat of Associate Justice Ming Chin, who retired Aug. 31.
“I am truly humbled and honored to be asked by the governor to continue serving the people of California on the Supreme Court,” Jenkins said in a statement. “If confirmed, I will serve with the highest ethical standards that have guided me throughout my career, informed by the law and what I understand to be fair and just.”
In a statement, Equality California executive director Rick Chavez Zbur said Newsom’s nomination of the first openly gay justice is a “monumental step forward for the LGBTQ+ community and for our entire state.”
Born and raised in San Francisco, Jenkins cleaned churches and office buildings with his father while growing up. He briefly played football with the Seattle Seahawks and then earned his law degree from the University of San Francisco.
Jenkins served as a deputy district attorney in Alameda County in the early 1980s and then worked in the U.S. Department of Justice in the Civil Rights Division from 1983 to 1985.
He was appointed by President Bill Clinton to the Northern District of California in 1997 and served through 2008. That year, then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger tapped Jenkins to serve on the First Appellate District bench, where he sat until 2019.
Since then, Jenkins has worked as the judicial appointments secretary in the Newsom administration.
At a Monday afternoon press conference, Jenkins thanked Newsom and outgoing Justice Chin.
“I would also be remiss if I did not acknowledge, and I heard you say, governor, that I am the third African American man to ever serve on this court,” said Jenkins.
He said he recalled when Wiley Manuel was appointed to the state’s highest court in 1977 and then Allen Broussard in 1981. He said he was only able to receive his nomination with the support and mentorship of both of those men as well as retired Alameda County Superior Court Judge Judy Ford and U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson of the Northern District of California. Jenkins said they “blazed the trail so I could stand here today and accept your nomination, governor.”
“I can’t imagine that my parents could have imagined that I would stand in this place today, or that they could see that I would be a nominee to the California Supreme Court,” Jenkins said. He thanked his partner for his support.
“I want to say something about being the first,” said Jenkins. “I want to say to some young person who may be out there today who is struggling with their identity, anyone who knows my identity as a gay man has perhaps been the greatest challenge of my life. I’m here because of the struggle. It has deepened my character, afforded me sensibilities about the world, and about people who are not so willing to accept that people can love differently than they do.”
San Francisco-based attorney Philip Kearney recalls the first time he appeared before Jenkins in the Northern District, the judge was carrying four large binders under each arm.
“He put them down on the dais and it was a great microcosm to the degree of preparation, studiousness and devotion to his case load — some of his biggest hallmarks,” said Kearney in a phone interview Monday.
Kearney — who said he knows Jenkins professionally and socially — previously served as an assistant U.S. attorney for 17 years in the San Francisco Bay Area. He is now with the law firm Murphy Pearson Bradley and Feeney as senior trial counsel and is current president of the St. Thomas More Society of San Francisco.
The society, a fellowship of Catholic lawyers and judges, recognized Jenkins in 1998 for his “distinguished record of service and dedication to his church, his community and his family.”
Kearney said Jenkins is a remarkable choice for the California Supreme Court.
In a statement, Newsom said Jenkins is “widely respected among lawyers and jurists, active in his Oakland community and his faith, and is a decent man to his core.”
Newsom’s nomination will go before the State Bar Commission on Judicial Nominees Evaluation ahead of confirmation by the Commission on Judicial Appointments.