Gov. Gavin Newsom nominated the first openly gay Black man to the state Supreme Court on Monday, potentially replacing one of the court's more conservative members with a former federal civil rights attorney who prosecuted cross-burnings and police misconduct cases under President Ronald Reagan.
Martin Jenkins, 66, would be the court's first gay member and the third Black person to serve on it, according to the governor's office. In a news conference announcing the nomination, Jenkins said his identity as a gay man has been “perhaps the greatest challenge in my life.”
“I want these young people to know that living a life of authenticity is the greatest gift you can give yourself. And if you do that, you will find yourself in a position where people see you,” Jenkins said. “Thank you, Governor Newsom, for seeing me.”
Jenkins, a lifelong registered Democrat, must first be confirmed by the Commission on Judicial Appointments after a public hearing for the job that comes with a $261,949 annual salary. The commission consists of Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Cakauye, Attorney General Xavier Becerra and the most senior presiding judge of the Court of Appeal. Newsom said Jenkins could be on the court next month.
“He knows that despite what the declaration says, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are not simply inalienable. They must be relentlessly protected and defended,” Newsom said.
Jenkins would replace Justice Ming W. Chin, the court's first Chinese American justice who was appointed in by Republican Gov. Pete Wilson in 1996. The court has two other Asian American justices, including the chief justice.
Jenkins grew up in San Francisco, the son of a stay-at-home mom and a dad who was a clerk and janitor at the city's iconic Coit Tower. He lived in a two-bedroom, one-bathroom house and attended Catholic school. He said he wasn't poor but told The Associated Press in an interview that his family did not have a lot of disposable income.
“There is a portion of folks who live like that in this country, maybe more now that live below the poverty line than in the ‘50s and ‘60s when I was coming up," Jenkins said.
He played football at Santa Clara University, where he was a team captain and dreamed of playing in the NFL. But his coach, George Patrick Malley, noticed his good grades and suggested he go to law school. Malley introduced Jenkins to his friend, Eugene Lynch, who was a judge and became Jenkin's mentor. When Lynch retired as a federal judge nearly 20 years later, Jenkins replaced him.
“It was solely the head football coach who saw something in me that I didn't,” Jenkins said.
After graduating from the University of San Francisco School of Law in 1980, Jenkins worked as a prosecutor for the Alameda County district attorney's office before joining the U.S. Department of Justice as a civil rights attorney.
Since then, he's been appointed to four different judgeships by Republicans and Democrats. A pair of Republican governors appointed him to state judgeships before Democratic President Bill Clinton made him a federal judge in 1998. He left that job in 2008 when Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger appointed him to the state Court of Appeal.
Jenkins retired last year to become judicial appointment secretary for Newsom, helping him vet judicial appointments.
Jenkins would not describe himself as conservative or liberal, saying “I don't land on labels.” He noted one of the state Supreme Court's key roles is to decide death penalty cases. But when asked to discuss his views on the death penalty, a spokesman for the governor's office intervened and said Jenkins would not answer that question.
Newsom imposed a moratorium on the death penalty last year.
“I try to approach the law openly,” Jenkins said. “I basically have a great fidelity to the law and respect for it and try to resolve it in ways that are reflective of what makes so much sense and doesn't make sense in a way people live their lives,” he said.
He pointed to two cases that he says best reflects the way he analyzes and interprets the law.
He ruled that current and past female employees had the right to sue Walmart in what would have been the largest gender bias class-action lawsuit in U.S. history. And he ruled AT&T could not stop women from using their time off during pregnancy in calculating their pension benefits.
The U.S. Supreme Court overturned Jenkins in both cases.
“I wasn't happy with the outcome, but I think they reflect the way in which I try to look at law and analyze legal issues,” he said.