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California

Vaino Spencer, trailblazing judge and one of California’s longest-serving jurists, dies at 96

Vaino Hassan Spencer, Vaino Spencer
Vaino Spencer, above in 1989, served 46 years on the bench.
(Southwestern Law School via Associated Press)

Vaino Spencer, the first African American woman appointed to a judgeship in California and who became a fierce champion of more opportunities for women and people of color in the workforce, has died. She was 96.

Spencer died of natural causes at her Los Angeles home Oct. 25, said her great-niece Fatimah Gilliam.

Spencer was a trailblazer at a time when women and people of color had made few inroads at the highest levels of the legal profession in California or the nation. She was appointed to the Los Angeles Municipal Court in 1961 and served as a Superior Court judge and on the Court of Appeal, before retiring in 2007.

Spencer served 46 years on the bench, becoming one of the longest-serving jurists in state history.

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In keeping up with her passion of promoting gender and racial equality, Spencer founded the Black Women Lawyers Assn. of Los Angeles in the 1970s and co-founded the National Assn. of Women Judges.  

“She had a lifetime of many firsts, but she wasn’t someone who felt like she should be the only one,” said Gilliam, a New York attorney.  

In a statement, California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye said Spencer was “a pioneer for women on the bench and a pioneer for people of color on the bench in Los Angeles, statewide and nationally.”

Born July 22, 1920, about a month before women were granted the right to vote, Spencer grew up during the Great Depression and was a real estate broker before she embarked on a legal career.

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“She came from a different time. Money was tight and she had to work her way” up, Gilliam said. “She definitely had thick skin, but I think she handled adversity with grace and dignity.”

According to Gilliam, Spencer earned an associate’s degree from Los Angeles City College in 1949 and a law degree from Southwestern University School of Law in 1952. She was a practicing attorney for nine years before being appointed to the Los Angeles Municipal Court by then-Gov. Edmund G. “Pat” Brown Sr. in 1961.

In 1976, she was appointed to the Superior Court by then-Gov. Jerry Brown. Brown appointed her presiding justice of Division One of the Second Appellate District Court of Appeal in 1980, making her the first black woman to sit on a California appeals court.    

Along with her zeal for the law, Spencer was a fashionable woman with a great sense of style, Gilliam said. She understood the importance of making a good first impression. Gilliam recalled a particular conversation she had with Spencer that made her laugh.

“I asked her one time, since she loved to travel, why she stopped traveling,” Gilliam said. “Spencer said, ‘Dear girl, I stopped traveling when people stopped dressing for the plane.’”

Shirlet Hope, who worked for 24 years as Spencer’s judicial assistant and was one of her closest friends, described Spencer as a boss who cared deeply about her staff.

“She was a very elegant lady and did everything in a very beautiful and tasteful way,” Hope said.

Spencer was an avid reader who enjoyed keeping up on current events and had a “phenomenal memory,” Gilliam said. 

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“She not only made her mark in jurisprudence, but she also made her mark in the community by being so civically-involved and supportive of different organizations that impact people of color and women,” Gilliam said.  

She was married to real estate broker Lorenzo Spencer for nearly 20 years, according to Gilliam. They divorced in 1967.

Spencer did not have children. She is survived by nieces Johann Hassan, a retired school teacher in Los Angeles, and Dr. Amina Hassan, and her great-niece Gilliam. Services are pending.

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