Tuesday, August 28, 2007
Colleagues Lavish Praise on Retiring Jurist Spencer
Supervisor Burke Notes Her Role as ‘True Pioneer’
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
Colleagues of Court of Appeal Presiding Justice Vaino Spencer were effusive in their praise yesterday as word of her impending retirement became public.
“As California’s first African-American woman judge, Justice Spencer has encouraged and counseled many women to apply for appointment or election and thereby serve the public in this important profession,” Presiding Justice Candace Cooper of Div. Eight said in a statement to the MetNews. “She graciously gave her time, counsel and support to scores of women and has actively helped to shape the face [and form] of the California judiciary. We are all the better for the changes that have come about as a result of her dedicated efforts to increase the ethnic and gender diversity of the bench.”
Spencer Friday notified Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Judges’ Retirement System that she will leave office this Saturday. The 87-year-old jurist was appointed to the Los Angeles Municipal Court in 1961 by then-Gov. Pat Brown in 1961; then-Gov. Jerry Brown elevated her to the Superior Court in 1976 and to her present position in 1980.
Among those attending Spencer’s swearing-in as a Superior Court judge was a high school student who spent the day with the judge as part of “Girl’s Day in Government,” Patricia Titus, now a Los Angeles Superior Court judge, recalled the experience:
“She was the first female judge I had ever met. Needless to say, I was awed and amazed at her acumen, poise, beauty and grace, and immediately aspired to be like her. She has been my role model ever since and I attribute my becoming a judge, in part, to the time and attention she unselfishly invested in me 30 years ago.”
For her part, Spencer said that after her long career, she was still leaving with “some regret” because she had worked with “fantastic” staff members, some of whom have been with her for a quarter-century. She said she will also treasure the former colleagues she was “blessed to serve with.”
She emphatically said she had no intention of working as an assigned or private judge, or elsewhere in the legal system, but would volunteer on behalf of charities and will be somewhat politically active.
The jurist, who served on state and county Democratic committees before joining the bench, explained that at one time, she knew many lawmakers, but most of them are no longer in office. Now, she said, she wants to get to know those who are in a position of influence so that she can talk to them about issues affecting the judiciary.
She said she wants to repel “unwarranted attacks on the judiciary,” support the retention of qualified judges, and continue her opposition to the “ridiculous” idea of allowing citation of unpublished opinions in briefs, an issue with which she has been involved since chairing the Court Management Committee for the state courts in the 1970s.
Of all of the things she has done in her career, the “most gratifying,” she said, is co-founding the National Association of Women Judges in 1979, alongside Joan Dempsey Klein, now presiding justice of Div. Three.
At the time, she explained, there were only about 170 women judges in the country, not thousands as there are today. An Arizona judge who was a charter member of the association, Sandra Day O’Connor, soon became the first woman ever to serve on the nation’s highest court, Spencer noted.
County Supervisor Yvonne B. Burke described Spencer as “a person I have admired over my entire career.”
The supervisor, who was the first black woman ever nominated for California attorney general by a major party, said of Spencer:
“She was one of the first African American Women to become a member of the bar and distinguished herself as an attorney. She was active in the Civil Rights movement and was a leader in the community as well as active in political organizations. She has been an outstanding jurist and represents a true pioneer for women in the bench and bar. She has been active in organizing the women on the bench and a leader in the struggle for full participation of women and minorities on the bench.”
Three former Court of Appeal colleagues contacted yesterday—retired Justices Robert Devich, William Masterson, and Reuben Ortega—all praised Spencer’s skills in handling the administrative duties of the presiding justice, saying she knew how to handle people.
Spencer fondly recalled some of the jurists she worked with, especially three who are now deceased—Mildred Lillie, L. Thaxton Hanson, and Vincent Dalsimer. She called Hanson a “dear friend” and “one of the nicest human beings you’d ever want to meet,” even though his politics were “ultra right-wing” and they were often on the opposite sides of decisions.
Devich recalled that he first got to know Spencer in the 1960s, when as a deputy district attorney, he was periodically assigned to her courtroom. Twenty years later, he became her colleague on the Court of Appeal, which he said only reinforced his view of her as “a lady of the highest class, very compassionate and very understanding.”
Masterson called her “one of the best bosses I ever had.”
Superior Court Judge Harvey Giss, who was a defense lawyer when Spencer was handling preliminary hearings in the Municipal Court, recalled her as “a very dignified magistrate in a rough and tumble Hall of Justice building that was right out of a Raymond Chandler novel,” and credited her with running “the only magistrate’s courtroom where the lawyers abandoned brass knuckled conduct and profanity and rough stuff.”
Giss’ colleague Allen J. Webster said he first knew Spencer 20 years before he became an attorney, and that she has always been available for “information, direction, guidance or understanding.”
Court of Appeal Justice Richard Mosk, whose father Stanley Mosk was California attorney general when Spencer went on the bench, described her “a good friend and supporter of my family for over 60 years,” and predicted she would “continue to be involved in public matters for many years to come.”
California Chief Justice Ronald M. George said he “very much enjoyed serving with her during my entire judicial career,” noting that they served simultaneously on the municipal, superior, and appellate courts. California, he said, will miss the “fine judicial service that she has contributed over the years.”
Justice Carlos Moreno described her as “truly legendary as a pioneer leader of women and minorities in the profession,” while the administrative presiding justice of this district’s Court of Appeal, Roger Boren, said her retirement will leave the court “considerably poorer.”
“She is elegance personified with lots of brains thrown in,” Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Lauren Weis Birnstein remarked.
Judith Chirlin, of that court, said: “Justice Spencer always has conducted herself with dignity, grace and charm.”
Superior Court Judge Irving Feffer hailed Spencer as “a great lady and a great judge” who, he said, “will be missed by both plaintiff and defense.”
Lance Ito, a Superior Court judge, had this to say:
“It was my privilege to pro tem with Division One back in the early 1990s. Despite the fact I was a young trial judge, Justice Spencer treated me with unfailing courtesy, dignity and graciousness. It was one of the very most positive experiences of my legal career. Her status as a true role model for today’s lawyers and judges cannot be overstated.”
Court of Appeal staff attorney Nina Levin commented:
“I have worked for Justice Spencer for 23 years. In that time, we have fought over opinions (she always won), over my “hippie” wardrobe (that’s a tossup), and whether I should force my husband to shave off his beard (he still has it). We have shared marriages, deaths, birthdays and lives. She is more than the best boss I have ever had—she is family. Through everything, she has been gracious, elegant, and generous. She has shown a concern for others, especially those who have been disadvantaged, and has worked hard to dispense justice—not merely the law—and to help others succeed. As much as her presence will be missed in the legal community, it will be missed even more by her staff and the rest of Division One, who have been blessed these many years having her as Presiding Justice.”
Copyright 2007, Metropolitan News Company