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Grandma inspired California’s first lesbian supreme court justice

Supreme Court of California Associate Justice Kelli Evans speaks at her confirmation hearing November 10, 2022
Jeff Chiu/Associated Press, media pool photographer
California Commission on Judicial Appointments
Supreme Court of California Associate Justice Kelli Evans speaks at her confirmation hearing November 10, 2022

Airs 6 pm Thursday As a young girl, future Supreme Court of California Associate Justice Kelli Evans was more excited about the bookmobile coming through her Denver neighborhood than the ice cream truck.

“I was a voracious reader,” the first out lesbian on California’s highest court told Out in the Bay Queer Radio + Podcast. Evans says she read an entire set of encyclopedias from A-Z and again from Z-A bought for her by her grandmother, who “probably paid a usurious amount” for them, along with countless more books while a child.

Sworn in January 2, 2023, Evans joined Associate Justice Martin Jenkins as the second out LGBTQ person on the state’s high court. Jenkins, a gay man who joined the high court in late 2020, spoke with Out in the Bay in 2021. They are both Black.

At her swearing-in ceremony, Governor Gavin Newsom noted that Evans was raised by her grandmother and highlighted that she was raised in public housing.

“I understand what it’s like to live in poverty. I understand what it’s like to be raised by a single parent – by a grandparent. I have a perspective and an experience that not a lot of lawyers have, not a lot of judges have,” Evans told Out in the Bay.

“I think that may have stood out to the governor,” said Evans, as well his recognition “that there are lots of brilliant, extremely hard-working, ingenious poor people.”

Evans said she buried her original U.C. Davis law degree with her grandmother “because it belonged to her.” Evans said she and her family members are “direct manifestations of her [grandmother's] deliberate, intentional actions to make sure we had opportunities that she was denied.”

She knew she wanted to be a lawyer from the age of 6 or 7. “I used to watch Perry Mason with my grandmother. I don’t know if that was the spark or not, but in my child mind I thought being a lawyer had something to do with fairness. And lawyers got to argue. Maybe I was an argumentative child, I don’t know.”

But Evans says she did know at that young age that her grandma, other relatives, friends and neighbors were “incredibly smart, incredibly funny, incredibly hard-working, [yet] didn’t have the opportunities or creature comforts that I saw on TV and in movies and that so many other people in society had.” The inequality “didn’t sit right” with her, so she aimed to do something about it.

On her historic appointment as the first openly LGBTQ woman on California’s highest court and one of its women of color, Evans said she’s “proud and honored to be a first,” and acknowledged standing on the shoulders of those before her.

This episode, which airs at 6 pm Thursday March 9 in Queer Power Hour, was produced by Kendra Klang. 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.