Justice Martin Jenkins made history today when Governor Gavin Newsom nominated him to serve on the California Supreme Court making him the first openly gay and only the third Black man in the state’s history to be elevated to this judicial position.
He will fill the seat vacated by California Supreme Court Associate Justice Ming Chin who retired August 31, 2020.
Jenkins currently serves as the Judicial Appointments Secretary in the Office of the Governor since January 2019. Previously he served as an Associate Justice on the California Court of Appeal, First Appellate District.
Previously Jenkins served as a judge on the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California from 1997 to 2008. From 1992 to 1997, he served as a judge on the Alameda County Superior Court.
From 1989 to 1992 Jenkins served on the Oakland Municipal Court. From 1986 to 1989, he was a trial attorney with the Pacific Bell Legal Department of San Francisco; from 1983 to 1986, he worked in the U.S. Department of Justice as a trial attorney and from 1980 to 1983, he worked as a prosecutor for the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office.
Currently serving as the governor’s Judicial Appointments Secretary, Jenkins is responsible for vetting candidates for vacancies in the state’s appellate and trial courts. In an exclusive interview with the Black Voice News he admitted to being surprised when speaking about the Supreme Court vacancy the governor said to him, “I appoint you.”
Justices of the California Supreme Court are appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Commission on Judicial Appointments. The justice’s appointment must be confirmed via retention referendum at the next gubernatorial election and stand for retention again at the end of their 12-year terms. Judicial retention is a periodic process whereby voters are asked whether an incumbent judge should remain in office for another term.
In a sense being appointed to fill the seat vacated by Justice Chin brings Jenkins’ evolution as a jurist full circle. It was Associate Justice Chin who gave Jenkins the chance to fill a temporary vacancy in the state Court of Appeal when he was a young superior court judge. Jenkins has credited this opportunity as having broadened his career horizons.
“There is no one as exceptional, well qualified, and knows the job. He is the highest caliber jurist you can find.”
—Judge Richard T. Fields said of Justice Martin Jenkins
When asked about breaking ground as the first openly gay Supreme Court Associate Justice, Jenkins’ response was humble and insightful. “My perspective as a Black man has been, you can understand that you have a different experience than your other colleagues do, and they have different experiences. Some of the experience one gains is sensibilities about the world in which one lives.”
He continued, “I have sensibility from being a gay man too, although it took me quite a long time to reconcile myself to it. It was quite a long journey to get to a point where I could live more authentically. I think I bring both perspectives from the journeys I’ve made in my life that should help me understand the importance of being the first, but the humility that comes with the overarching responsibility I have that is to serve the residents of the state as best I can.”
Jenkins believes each job he held during his nearly 30 years as a jurist presented different challenges and helped prepare him for this new role. “The approaches are similar, but trial court judges play a different role than Supreme Court justices and intermediate trial court judges play a different role. Supreme Court justices get to pick the cases they decide. That is not true for lower courts. I think the challenge will be bringing a perspective from my past experiences to bear on the new responsibilities and looking at legal issues more consistently, from a broader policy perspective.”
He added, “Those will be the challenges, but I bring with me the experience of having worked as an appellate justice to reach consensus with members of the court and I have a rather robust understanding from experience of what it is like to serve as a state court trial judge and even served 11 years as a federal court trial judge.”
When asked which of those positions he believes best prepared him for the position of Supreme Court justice than others he responded, “I think all of them. A Supreme Court position draws on all your talents and skills.”
Jenkins also spoke with sincere admiration and appreciation about two individuals, role models, who touched his life in different ways and helped inform his approach to professional success.
One individual he had the fortune of meeting very early in life was legendary tennis champion Arthur Ashe, the first Black player selected to the United States Davis Cup team and the only Black man ever to win the singles title at Wimbledon, the US Open, and the Australian Open.
“As a high school student, I was one of two African Americans in San Francisco playing varsity tennis. A Black newspaper reporter with the San Francisco Chronicle [at the time] named Huel Washington, took me and my doubles partner to see Arthur Ashe play in a tennis tournament. It was my first professional tennis tournament.”
Governor Gavin Newsom and Justice Martin Jenkins
Jenkins explained how Ashe said some things to him that he has never forgotten. “He told me to never apologize for being a good athlete, that it would provide a platform—if I were good enough—from which I could touch many people. And that it was important to prepare yourself academically to have the influence you might have with people. And I never forgot those things.”
Another who made a meaningful impact on his life was a woman who recently passed away, the nation’s first openly LGBT, African American federal judge, Justice Deborah (Debbie) Batts.
“At a certain point, I came out to Debbie and we would just meet sometimes. She would be giving a lecture down at Stanford Law School or someplace and we would get together. She was so very supportive and really a champion for trying to get to a life of authenticity. There was no more and no less than that. When you shake it all down it’s living your truth and doing something for yourself, that is to be you.”
Jenkins acknowledged living a life of authenticity as a Black gay man was not easy. “The journey has been difficult and challenging. I came out late in life. My journey has been authentically mine and I owned it.” Jenkins proclaimed he is able to stand in this truth.
As he prepares to assume the role of an Associate Justice of the California Supreme Court, Jenkins commented from an overarching and judicial perspective about the roles and responsibilities of the three branches of government and the state: “I think we are unique and lucky here in California regarding issues of equity and inclusion. I think they play out a bit different than they do in other places in the country. But those [issues] are pivotal. I think the legislature has its role to play; certainly, the governor’s office, the executive branch, has its role to play; and then, [the Supreme Court] as a third, co-equal branch, has its role to play as well.”
According to Jenkins the Court, by constitutional fiat, is usually less reactive and more deliberate. “That doesn’t mean better, it is just that’s the approach. So, I try not to get out ahead of the individual issues we might see on the high court, but to take them as they percolate their way up in a way that they are ripe for resolution and then, I hope to join my colleagues to try and resolve them in a way that is in the best interest of all Californians.”
On a personal level, Jenkins who has never married and has no children of his own, spoke fondly of being the proud godfather to no less than ten children. “I have always been involved in high schools and working with young men and women,” he offered. “I was a juvenile court judge in Alameda County and ran that division. I have always had a heart for working with young people. That has been my focus really, in terms of where I spend my time outside of court work.”
Speaking about his own life experiences and pathway to success, Jenkins reflected on what advice he would offer young people finding their way today. “I was always drawn to people who were living in a way that I thought I wanted to. That was true in athletics and it was true when I got to law school.”
He respectfully recalled his experience with African American Federal District Court Judge Thelton Henderson who was appointed by President Jimmy Carter in 1979.
“Judge Henderson who has been a mentor of mine and I think, without a doubt, has been one of the foremost jurists in the history of our country. When I read about him, I even went down to the court to watch him preside as a new judge and there were certain things I could relate to.”
“He wasn’t flashy,” Henderson recalled. “He struck me as extremely humble and as a man, it was important for me to understand that you could show up in the world that way and not have people think they could take advantage of you.”
Jenkins shared how he was drawn to the kinds of people who had the kind of values and were doing the kinds of things he wanted to do. “I would reach out and I would encourage young folks to do the same.” He explained how he called Judge Henderson, “He did not know who I was, and his secretary kept asking me why I was calling. I said, ‘I need some career advice.’”
“Unbeknownst to me,” Jenkins continued, “[Henderson] cleared his calendar one day and gave me about three hours. Twenty years after that conversation, I took the chambers right next door to his in federal court. He was a big part of that.”
Jenkins earned a Juris Doctor degree from the University of San Francisco School of Law. He once said in a university profile: “I always worked hard but I was not confident…My father was a janitor for 40 years at Coit Tower (San Francisco). My mother was a nurse by trade but didn’t work outside the home when I was growing up. I didn’t know lawyers. I was concerned it was beyond me.”
To stay on top of his studies, Jenkins said he showed up at his professors’ office hours every Friday with a list of questions. “No one turned me away.”
“When calls were being made around the state about who should fill the empty (Supreme Court) seat, I know I wasn’t the only one who suggested Justice Jenkins,” Judge Richard T. Fields said of the nomination. Fields is the first Black judge in California’s Riverside County. “I said, I know he’s the Judicial Appointments Secretary, but there is no one with more experience than Justice Jenkins.”
“There is no one as exceptional, well qualified, and knows the job with that kind of experience,” he said. “He is the highest caliber jurist you can find.”
S.E. Williams is executive editor of the Black Voice News and IE Voice.