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Newsom’s pick for California high court talks about coming out: ‘My journey was different’

Martin Jenkins, 66, who is slated to become the first openly gay justice on the California Supreme Court, served on the bench for decades without disclosing his sexual orientation to most friends and colleagues.

He began coming out as gay during the last four to five years, he said during an interview Tuesday, and found the experience invigorating. He fell in love with his partner, real estate broker Sydney Shand, two years ago.

“It was the first time I fell in love and was willing to go ahead and embrace that emotion and return it without sabotaging it,” said Jenkins, who was educated by Jesuits in college and law school.

Gov. Gavin Newsom appointed Jenkins to the state’s highest court Monday. He has been working as Newsom’s legal appointments secretary since leaving the San Francisco-based Court of Appeal in 2019.

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Jenkins seemed to bristle when asked if it was ironic that someone who was private about his sexual orientation for so long would become the first openly gay justice.

Martin Jenkins was appointed to a seat on the California Supreme Court.
(Handout)

“I don’t see any irony ..., " he said. “My journey has been different. If someone finds irony in that, so be it. What I feel and think is that people have to come to their own resolution and self-acceptance in their own time.”

He and Shand, who lives in Southern California, have bought a home in Los Angeles County and will move there once Jenkins’ house in the East Bay sells. Jenkins will be the second justice on the seven-member San Francisco-based court living in Southern California. Four of the others live in the Bay Area, and Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye lives in Sacramento.

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Asked if he planned to marry, Jenkins laughed and said: “First step at a time.”

Jenkins was considered a moderate on the bench and owes three of his four judicial appointments to California Republican governors. He rejected any label though, saying he applied the law as he saw it.

“I am a lifelong Democrat, that is what I am,” he said.

In fact, he said, his mentor has been retired U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson, a renowned liberal and Carter appointee who is also Black and who served in San Francisco. Before making any career decision, Jenkins said, he regularly consulted Henderson. Jenkins first met the judge when he was in law school. Once he was on the bench with Henderson, Jenkins told him he was gay. Jenkins left the federal bench in 2008.

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“The process of coming out has been ongoing,” Jenkins said.

Henderson has been a powerful influence, Jenkins said.

“He is the judge who has most affected me in terms of how I walk in the world and in terms of how I run a courtroom,” he said. Another influence was Judge Saundra Brown Armstrong, who is also Black and serves on the same Northern California bench. President George H.W. Bush appointed her to that post.

Jenkins for years has regularly attended St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in West Oakland, where the congregation is primarily Black and Latino and low-income.

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“It has kept me humble and kept me rooted,” Jenkins said.

A San Francisco native, Jenkins grew up helping his father clean office buildings and churches to earn extra money. His father also worked full time for the city of San Francisco as a clerk and janitor.

The younger Jenkins earned his undergraduate degree from Santa Clara University, where he was a standout defensive back. He said his plan back then was to become a teacher, and he has volunteered in recent years at a middle school in Oakland, doing everything from copying papers for students to take home to tutoring them in reading.

But his football coach urged him to consider the law. The idea hadn’t occurred to him.. “I didn’t know any lawyers,” he said. After a brief stint in the NFL, he decided to take his coach’s advice and enrolled at the University of San Francisco.

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Kevin Brown, a real estate agent, has been friends with Jenkins since they roomed together at Santa Clara University. Years ago, Brown said, a homeless person in San Francisco asked Jenkins for money after Jenkins had just purchased a new pair of shoes.

Brown said Jenkins told the man, "`I don’t have any money, but you can have my shoes.’”

“Marty is just one of the most gracious, kindhearted people I have ever met,” Brown said. “He hasn’t changed. He is the same person I met over 40 years ago.”

While still a law student, Jenkins asked for an appointment with Henderson. He said Henderson, a busy judge, cleared his schedule and spoke to him for three hours.

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After law school, Jenkins worked as a prosecutor in Alameda County and later for the Civil Rights Division in the Justice Department under President Reagan, handling cases of police misconduct and cross burnings. He began his long career as a judge in 1989 when former Gov. George Deukmejian appointed him to the Alameda County Municipal Court.

Most governors and presidents want to appoint judges who are relatively young and will remain on the bench for many years. Jenkins said Newsom did not ask him to commit to any term on the court, but Jenkins said he is not considering retiring anytime soon. “I will stay as long as I can make a contribution,” he said.

Newsom was known to have been considering other gay judges for the state high court vacancy, created when Justice Ming W. Chin stepped down on Aug. 31. Jenkins vetted those candidates, and someone else vetted him. He declined to say whether Newsom expressed interest in appointing a gay person to the court from the start. He did not want to reveal private deliberations with the governor, he said.

Before Jenkins opened up about being gay, he said, he dealt with different aspects of his life separately. “That compartmentalization takes a lot of energy and a lot of time,” he said.

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He is now happier “just living fully and authentically.”

“That is energizing, " Jenkins said.


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