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Gay Calif. Supreme Court justice values struggle

California Supreme Court Associate Justice Martin Jenkins accepting his nomination October 5, 2020.
Photo: Courtesy of YouTube
California Supreme Court Associate Justice Martin Jenkins accepting his nomination October 5, 2020.

Martin Jenkins is making history as the first openly gay Supreme Court of California justice and is only the third Black man ever to serve on the state's high court. He says personal challenges helped him achieve success.

Associate Justice Jenkins told Out in the Bay about his biggest personal challenge and about the importance of being Black and gay on California’s Supreme Court and of diverse representation generally.

Life experience “can illuminate the fabric of the law as it’s being discussed” in court deliberations, said Jenkins. “The law is about people and for people ... That kind of cross-pollination, that kind of education about the impacts of what we’re deciding is crucial.”

Jenkins, now 68, came out fairly late in life – in his fifties – after repressing his orientation for decades. When he accepted the state Supreme Court nomination in October 2020, he addressed young people “struggling with their identity.” He told Out in the Bay that coming to terms with being gay had been “perhaps the greatest challenge of my life,” yet also that he had accomplished what he had “because of the struggle,” not in spite of it.

“Struggle brings you to grips with the reality of who you are,” he elaborated. “The lack of struggle does the opposite: it allows us to believe things about ourselves that are not anchored in reality. … When you can show up as who you are, authentically, that’s a power beyond measure.”

Jenkins grew up in San Francisco the son of a nurse and a janitor. He was a pro football player briefly after college, before being convinced by a coach and a college dean that he’d be a great lawyer. In his mid-twenties, after being an Alameda County prosecutor, he investigated police misconduct, KKK cross-burnings and other racial violence cases in states nationwide for the U.S. Justice Department.

Democrat and Republican governors alike later appointed Jenkins for judgeships on courts from Alameda County to federal and state courts, culminating in Gov. Gavin Newsom nominating Jenkins to California’s Supreme Court, where he was sworn in Dec. 4, 2020.

Our talk with Justice Jenkins first aired in September 2021. It was co-produced by Kendra Klang and Eric Jansen; audio edited by Lusen Mendel. You can find information on cases coming before the Supreme Court of California on its website, https://www.courts.ca.gov.

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Eric Jansen is a long-time broadcaster and print journalist. A former news anchor, producer and reporter at KQED FM, San Francisco; KLIV AM, San Jose; and Minnesota Public Radio, Eric's award-winning reports have been heard on many NPR programs and PRI's Marketplace. His print work has been in The Mercury News, The Business Journal, and LGBTQ magazines Genre and The Advocate, among other publications. He co-produced the June 2007 PBS documentary Why We Sing!, about LGBTQ choruses and their role in the civil rights fight.