The first openly gay Supreme Court of California justice, Martin Jenkins, is not only the first openly LGBTQ justice on the high court, he’s also only the third Black man ever to serve on it.
Associate Justice Martin Jenkins told Out in the Bay about his biggest personal struggle 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. “The law is about people and for people,” said Jenkins. “That kind of cross-pollination, that kind of education about the impacts of what we’re deciding is crucial.”
Jenkins, now 69, 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 said 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 for Out in the Bay. “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 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.
UPDATE: California’s Supreme Court now has its first queer woman of color! Associate Justice Kelli Evans, formerly an Alameda County Superior Court Judge, was sworn in January 2, 2023. We hope to bring you a conversation with her soon.
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