Making Judicial History in California and the Importance of LGBT Judges

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December 21, 2012

Yesterday, the California Commission on Judicial Appointments confirmed the state’s first openly gay appellate justice. Back in 1979, California Governor Jerry Brown made history when he appointed the first openly gay judge in the United States, Stephen Lachs, to the Los Angeles County Superior Court. Now in 2012, Governor Brown continues to make significant contributions to improving diversity at all levels of California’s courts.

The recent appointments of Jim Humes to the California Court of Appeals and out lesbian attorney Paula Rosenstein to the San Diego Superior Court are welcome progress. However, California, like all states, still has work to do as openly LGBT individuals, people of color, and women are still underrepresented at all levels of the state bench.

In an effort to improve judicial diversity in California, Lambda Legal supported a law enacted in 2011, requiring the Administrative Office of the Courts to gather demographic data on the sexual orientation and gender identity of judges to be included in annual reports on the ethnicity, race and gender composition of the courts. The first LGBT inclusive report to be released earlier this year revealed that only 1% of state judges self-identified as gay, 1.1% as lesbian, one as transgender and none as bisexual.

Improving these numbers is important. After all, California’s courts resolve significant issues that impact the lives and rights of LGBT people.

In California, state judges have decided cases involving marriage rights for LGBT people, who can adopt children, whether physicians’ offices can discriminate against LGBT people based on religious objections, the obligation of the government to not use public resources to support organizations that discriminate against LGBT people in violation of the law, and whether businesses that extend benefits to married couples must extend them on an equal basis to registered domestic partners.

Equally important to the LGBT community are federal judges who are nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate to serve life-time terms. It was the federal courts that heard the Prop 8 case, starting with District Court for the Northern District of California Judge Vaughn Walker, who struck down the law as unconstitutional. Judge Walker, after hearing weeks of argument and testimony, issued important findings of fact that were later given tremendous deference by reviewing courts, including the Supreme Court which is reviewing the Prop 8 case this term.

President Obama has nominated an unprecedented eight openly gay and lesbian candidates to the federal courts. Earlier this year, the President nominated and the Senate confirmed Michael Fitzgerald to the District Court for the Central District of California. His confirmation made him the fourth openly gay federal judge in the country and the first in California. Judge Walker, who is also openly gay, came out during his tenure on the bench.

With the rights of LGBT people and their families at stake, it is imperative that cases are decided by judges who weigh the facts and apply the law without bias. But it is also important that the courts are perceived to be impartial, as the courts owe their very legitimacy to the public’s acceptance of their rulings as fair and just. This is why diversity on the bench matters.

Everyone is entitled to equal access to justice, and yet justice has not always been a reality for some. A diverse legal system that represents a broad range of perspectives and experiences serves not only to improve the quality of justice, but also to boost public confidence in the courts. When the judiciary reflects the diversity of the population it serves and not just a powerful majority, it strengthens the perception and the likelihood that the decisions of the courts are fair. 

Increasing diversity will help to ensure the highest level of judicial integrity and equal access to justice. Visit the Fair Courts Project to find out more about how you can take action to support our courts.