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Joan Dempsey Klein, a California appellate court judge and a champion of women’s rights, dies at 96

Judge Joan Dempsey Klein, with two men in the background, speaks into a microphone.
Justice Joan Dempsey Klein, who was a member of the California Commission on Judicial Appointments, speaks at a 2006 confirmation hearing in San Francisco.
(Eric Risberg / Associated Press)

Joan Dempsey Klein, a celebrated champion of women’s rights and the first woman to become presiding judge of a California appellate court, died in her sleep at her home in Santa Monica on Christmas Eve. She was 96.

“She was definitely a self-made woman, quite ahead of her times, who pushed the barriers of what was possible for women at the time and always made sure to bring others along with her,” the justice’s stepdaughter, Karen Klein, wrote to The Times in an email.

The National Assn. for Women Judges, an organization co-founded by Justice Klein in 1979, described the late judge who served 36 years in Division 3 of the 2nd District Court of Appeal as a “trailblazer, giant, mentor, founding mother” and “a pioneer in the struggle to achieve equal opportunity for women in the law.”

A fifth-generation Californian, Klein earned a bachelor’s degree from San Diego State, where she swam and played volleyball. After graduating, she joined the touring aquatic performance show Buster Crabbe’s Aqua-Parade and was part of a synchronized swimming troupe that toured Europe in 1950.

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When she returned to the U.S., she was awarded a one-year fellowship at UCLA, where, as a female athlete, she was encouraged to study physical education.

Klein decided to study law instead. She paid her own way through law school by working part-time jobs. By the time she completed her degree in 1955, she was married and had two sons.

She worked as a state deputy attorney general in L.A. in 1956, where she met her second husband, Conrad Klein. The two were married in 1963, the same year Gov. Pat Brown appointed her to the Los Angeles Municipal Court, making her the first graduate of UCLA Law School to become a judge. She soon became presiding judge of the Municipal Court, where her accomplishments included supporting the first detoxification center for alcoholics.

She co-founded the California Women Lawyers Assn. in 1974 and was elected as a judge on the L.A. County Superior Court in 1975.

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Four years later, she and her benchmate and friend Justice Vaino Spencer formed the National Assn. of Women Judges to promote the increasing number of women on the judiciary and to address the gender bias experienced by the few female justices at the time.

Klein served 50 years as a judge in California and wrote more than 500 judicial opinions. She testified before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee on behalf of Sandra Day O’Connor’s nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court and met with President Clinton at the White House. She also traveled across the globe, representing women in the American judiciary, mentored many young women locally and was honored with dozens of awards, including the woman of the year award from The Times in 1975.

She retired from the bench at the end of 2014, at the age of 90.

“She impressed all she met,” her stepdaughter said. In a phone interview Sunday, Karen Klein also described her “second mom” as “vibrant, very high-energy — she had a big voice and was incredibly frank and fun to talk with. She was always a straight shooter. She wanted to know everything going on about politics and the law and would watch all the news shows, but once in a while, we’d get her to watch a nature show just to change the topic. She really cared about animals.”

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The oldest of five children in a blended family, Klein remembers a childhood spent in a backyard graced with a tennis court and pool. She and her siblings and their parents would often play or swim, wrapping up the day with a barbecue. The kids often invited friends to come over, and the judge “would sit them right down and say, ‘What are your life goals?’”

“We didn’t do small talk. She’d ask them: ‘What do you think of the president? Do you think women can be president?’ She wanted the boys and girls, especially the girls, to know that they could be all they wanted to be,” Klein said, adding that her stepmom would be “hanging out with us in her bathing suit or her sweats, which women didn’t wear to hang out in the ’60s. She was forward-thinking.”

After the judge’s retirement, following a knee transplant, she would continue to walk from her home near the beach to Santa Monica Pier, observing “runners, bikers and all forms of life to help keep up with life,” her stepdaughter recalled.

Colleagues described the former justice as “phenomenal, a powerhouse.”

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“She was very devoted to eliminating sexism for women in the law,” said Judith McConnell, administrative presiding justice for the 4th District Court of Appeal based in San Diego.

One example is the time Justice Klein drove from Los Angeles to San Diego to give “a high-spirited speech” to a group of people, encouraging them to form what would become the Lawyers Club, a feminist bar association, in the early ’70s. She delivered a similar talk in Tennessee, McConnell said, sharing her beliefs “that women all around the nation should be more visible.”

Klein fought for the rights of women to open bank accounts or buy stocks in their own name, without having to ask their husbands or fathers for permission as required by law in earlier decades.

“It was fun to watch her on the bench. She had a deep voice and a quite direct way of asking questions,” McConnell said, having witnessed her friend help preside over confirmation hearings for California Supreme Court justices, including Goodwin Liu and Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye.

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Klein is survived by her five children, including Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Marc Dempsey Gross, Susan Bruin, Brad Gross and Amy Millard; along with eight grandchildren, two of whom are lawyers.

Due to the coronavirus, the family will not be holding a public memorial and will instead gather with close family members when it is safe to do so.


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