What does it take to get appointed to the bench?
Justice Martin Jenkins, Governor Newsom’s Appointments Secretary, addressed this question in his inspiring keynote speech at the ACBA’s annual Installation and Awards dinner on January 23rd, 2020, at the Rotunda building. He urged us not to underestimate Governor Newsom’s intelligence and commitment to justice (despite his fancy hair). The Governor, he said, is firm in his focus on inclusion: California for All. The Governor is sharply aware of the importance of judicial appointments in that focus, and Justice Jenkins is clearly proud to be helping the Governor fulfill that mission.
And in many ways, who better to implement this goal? Justice Jenkins spoke eloquently of his childhood as the son of a janitor at Coit Tower and a mother with severe mental health challenges. His parents prioritized education and worked hard to ensure that his children did, as well. After a brief career in professional football, Justice Jenkins turned to law school in order to make a difference – inspired in part by the pro bono attorney who once helped his family. After working in the Alameda County District Attorney’s office, the U.S. Department of Justice, and at Pacific Bell, Justice Jenkins was appointed to the Alameda County Municipal Court, and then elevated to the Superior Court. Then, in 1997, President Bill Clinton nominated him for a seat on the U.S. District Court, where he sat until 2008, when Governor Schwarzenegger appointed him to the California 1st District Court of Appeal. Having thus sat on almost every court possible in our state, Justice Jenkins is uniquely suited to assess judicial applicants.
Justice Jenkins didn’t dismiss the importance of the usual criteria for the bench – a spectrum of legal experience, community service, judicial “temperament” – he offered the three top criteria that this Governor looks to as he considers applicants.
- Humility: Justice Jenkins stated unequivocally that this is the number one criterion that he and the Governor are applying. Courage, the ability to say, “I got it wrong,” the willingness to listen intently and to set aside one’s ego and do what is right – this is critical for judges.
- Intelligence/intellectual curiosity/common sense: Obviously a judge must be intelligent, but they must also be also be able to apply that intelligence to real life. Judges must craft rulings that comply with the law, but also recognize the life realities of those before them. And, even more than a broad experience in legal subject areas, is intellectual curiosity that will enable a new judge to learn a new area of law.
- Broad life experience: Judges with a life experience that spans different communities and ways of living bring that life experience to bear on the bench and are better able to empathize and understand the whole circumstances before them.
Justice Jenkins certainly gave us a lot of information about the process and criteria (more than we have had in the past.) But more than anything, Justice Jenkins inspired us. Fundamentally, he told us, being a judge is a service job. It’s not a job for everyone, but for those who view it in this way, it can be one of the higher forms of public service.