Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Monday, January 4, 2021


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Tributes Offered to Joan Dempsey Klein, Former Presiding Justice, Who Dies at 96


By a MetNews Staff Writer








Terms such as “trailblazer,” “legend” and “role model” were applied on Thursday in tributes to the late Joan Dempsey Klein, the presiding justice of Div. Three of this district’s Court of Appeal for 37 years—from 1978 until her retirement in 2015—and served in the judiciary for half a century.

Los Angeles Superior Court Presiding Judge Kevin C. Brazile, on his last workday as his court’s leader, was joined by Presiding Judge-Elect Eric C. Taylor in informing colleagues, in an email, that “with great sadness” they were conveying “that Judge Marc Dempsey Gross lost his mother, retired Appellate Court Justice Joan Dempsey Klein, on Thursday, December 24, 2020.”

‘Brilliant,’ ‘Charming’

They advised that she “passed away peacefully, in her sleep, while at home in Santa Monica,” remarking:

“Justice Klein was brilliant, charming, caring and a wonderful mentor to so many.”

In light of the pandemic, there will be no public service, they advised.

Taylor added, in a comment to the METNEWS:

“Justice Klein is a legend in our legal community, and she will remain a legend for the ages. From the first graduate of UCLA law school to be appointed judge, to founding president of the California Women Lawyers and co-founder and first president of the National Association for Women Judges, her contributions will live on, and we will be forever grateful.”

Contested Race

Appointed to the Los Angeles Municipal Court in 1963—then known as Joan Gross—Klein was elected by the judges in 1972 as assistant presiding judge for the following year. The 1973 presiding judge, Vincent N. Erickson, decided to run for what was then an unprecedent second one-year term, and Klein challenged him, winning by a vote of 36 to 26.

While serving as the 1974 presiding judge, Klein jumped in a race for an open seat on the Los Angeles Superior Court. There were eight municipal court judges vying for the office, two of whom were women.

The two women, Klein and Los Angeles Municipal Court Judge Bonnie Lee Martin, were the high vote-getters, with Klein attracting 33 percent of the ballots, and Martin garnering 19 percent of them.

In the course of the contest, Martin sent out letters to Democratic clubs and candidates proclaiming that she was the only Democrat in the race. Klein—who was registered as a nonpartisan—protested:

 “I feel it is a very inappropriate thing to be doing. The judiciary should not be used in a partisan manner.”

Victory went to Klein, by a vote of 768,571 to 590,182.

In 1976, she contemplated mounting an election challenge to the appointed district attorney, John Van de Kamp. This would have meant, however, going off salary while she ran, and having to raise substantial funds—deterring her from entering the contest.

In a 2011 interview, she said she had “absolutely” no regret over not having run, reflecting:

“I don’t know why I ever had that in mind.”

NAWJ President

As president of the National Association of Woman Judges (“NAWJ”) —which she founded, along with Court of Appeal Presiding Justice Vaino Spencer (now deceased)—she spoke on Sept. 9, 1981 in favor of the confirmation by the Senate of Sandra Day O’Connor as the first female justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. She told the Senate committee members:

“[A]s timely as we consider this appointment to be, and as eager as we are to have such an appointment become a reality, we are emphatic that the woman selected be of the highest caliber. By virtue of the fact that so many of us have been the ‘first woman judge’ or the ‘only woman judge’ in any number of situations, we are keenly aware of the spotlight focused on our every act, and the scrutiny to which we are continually subjected. Such attention will be magnified in the case of the ‘first woman justice on the Supreme Court!’ Her performance will reflect on all of us lesser judicial luminaries, and we want to be assured that she has the capacity to succeed.

“For these reasons and more, I am very pleased to report that the National Association of Women Judges finds the nominee, the Honorable Sandra Day O’Connor, to be exceptionally well qualified.”

Colleagues’ Recollections

One of the associate justices in Klein’s Div. Three was Patti S. Kitching, now retired. She said Thursday:

“It was my privilege to work for 25 years with Justice Joan Dempsey Klein on Division Three of the Los Angeles Court of Appeal.

“Justice Klein wore many hats during her career on the court.

“She was an excellent Presiding Justice of Division Three. She respected and supported each member of our division including the justices, the research attorneys, clerks, and all court employees.”

Arthur Gilbert, a presiding justice of another panel in this district—Div. Six—had served with Klein on the Los Angeles Municipal Court.

“I knew Justice Klein only a few years…since…1965 or so,” he said. “She ran the hectic Municipal master calendar court like a…master. She proved a woman could do the job better than most men. She never stopped proving that.

“We were colleagues and friends throughout the decades and we all know she made a difference. I urge you to view the oral history of justice Klein on YouTube where I had the privilege of interviewing her. You will truly know what a remarkable person she was.”

Baron’s Recollections

Former Court of Appeal Justice Elizabeth Baron, now retired, had this to say:

“I first met Joan when I was still a fashion model. I was stunned to learn she was a judge as back then I didn’t think women could be lawyers no less judges. That is probably because there were so few women in the law other than legal secretaries. But Joan was singularly responsible for changing that. She was driven to helping women become lawyers and judges and to see that women were treated fairly in the court system.

“She founded the California Women Lawyers Association and along with now deceased Justice Vaino Spencer formed the National Association for Women Judges. These organizations carried great weight with Governors in their judicial appointments of women. But Joan advised and encouraged women on a personal one-to-one basis by encouraging and advising them on how to be a judge.

“She was my advisor, role model and friend. Without her encouragement I would never have thought to apply for the bench. Later in my career I had to pinch myself to believe I was brown bagging it with her every day as an Appellate Court colleague.

“Listening to Joan debating law with her colleagues and watching the loving teasing she endured as the only Democrat at a lunch table with all justices appointed by Republican governors was an absolute treat. Joan was a wife, mother, legal scholar, tennis player, swimmer and climbed four flights of stairs every day to her chambers well into her nineties.

“Who could do more or be more beloved than Joan! May she rest in peace.”

Cohen’s Reflections

Retired Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Isabel R. Cohen, a former president of the California Women Lawyers, worked with Klein. She provided these thoughts:

“Women on the bench and in law everywhere owe Justice Klein attribution and gratitude for busting barriers and stereotypes which kept us in our place. She forever changed the face of law and justice in modernity.

“She had rectitude and self-assurance, and never hesitated to be the terrible swift sword of equality. She and her great pal, Justice Vaino Spencer, were the inspiration for generations of women in law. Their legacy is a beacon.

“It should be noted that on returning from a NAWJ conference in Washington DC at about the time of the appointment of the first woman to the US Supreme Court, Justice Klein reported that in a private audience, she gave Justice Sandra O’Connor her ‘two cents’ (she said) about women on the bench. I have no doubt she made a lasting impression.

“When the late Chief Justice Rose Bird appointed me in 1982 for six months to sit pro tem in Justice Klein’s Division Three, the Justices Klein and Spencer took me to lunch and gave me that two cents. They made a lasting impression.”

Chief Justice Comments

California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye said:

“It was a honor to serve with her on the Commission on Judicial Appointments to confirm the next generation of California jurists, far more diverse and representative of the people we serve. It was a privilege knowing her and working with her.”

Retired Court of Appeal Justice Sheila Prell Sonenshine, who sat in the Fourth District, contributed these words:

“Justice Joan Dempsey Klein was a trail blazer, a fierce competitor, strong, determined, loyal, independent, ambitious, judicious, caring, practical, a devoted wife, a proud mother and grandmother, fun and  most important to me she was a supporter, mentor and friend. Her impact on my life was immeasurable. I will forever treasure her memory!”

Former LACBA Presidents

Patricia Phillips, the first woman president of the Los Angeles County Bar Association, related:

“Joan Dempsey Klein was an original member of the Downtown Women Partners which I organized in the mid-60s. As one of the few women active in the law at that time, Joanie was a forthright, outspoken supporter of women achieving success in every area of the practice.

“She and Vaino Spencer were like sisters and each contributed in equal and different measures to the advancement of women in the law always keeping in mind that the true role of lawyers is to serve the public and assure justice truthfully and with vigor. Joanie was one of a kind. I am personally grateful to her and I will miss her.”

Another former LACBA president, Edith R. Matthai, said:

“Justice Joan Dempsey Klein was a trailblazer for all of us because of her wisdom, courage, tenacity and civility. She exemplified all of the best parts of our profession. We can celebrate her legacy by striving to match her excellence.”

Former LACBA President Patrick M. Kelly termed Klein “a beacon and a role model for all of us,” adding:

“By her service she has left an indelible and positive mark on our community and she will be sorely missed.”

Wise ‘Trailblazer’

Retired Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Elizabeth R. Feffer, now a mediator/arbitrator, offered this tribute:

“The term ‘trailblazer’ is often used, but it aptly describes Joan Dempsey Klein. With her intelligence, poise, and clear legal reasoning, she eased the path for subsequent generations of women in law, whether in practice or on the bench. As a justice, she was wise and hardworking, and authored over 500 published opinions. Just as admirable is her decades-long devotion to public service. She was a mentor to many, and an inspiration to countless more.”

Loyola Law School Professor Laurie Levinson described Klein as “a giant of the legal profession and an inspiration for all,” adding:

“She pushed every young lawyer to claim her fair share of success by working hard and persevering in a system that is not always fair. Justice Klein was a brilliant, caring, courageous force of nature.  I cannot imagine what our profession would be without her.” 

Former Los Angeles County Supervisor and former member of the U.S. House of Representatives Yvonne Brathwaite Burke commented:

“When I think of Judge Klein I also think of her fellow Judge Vaino Spencer. They forged the way for women in the legal and Judicial Community. It was my honor to call them friends and as we see more women on the Appellate Bench we must thank them for providing Excellence, Judicial temperament and knowledge that made our system of Justice fair, sensitive and truly Just. It was my honor to know the Honorable Joan Dempsey Klein.”

Cordial on Bench

Appellate attorney Douglas Collodel said Klein was “a mainstay in the Second District.” He continued:

“I had the pleasure of appearing in her division numerous times over the 30 years our appellate paths crossed. Some appearances were more difficult than others when one tried to present arguments with which she did not agree, as readily apparent from her questions and comments, but all were cordial.

“I looked forward to oral arguments in her division because the justices always were engaging and open to dialogue with counsel—most memorable to me was a session that lasted nearly an hour and a half trying to navigate an old statute with, as the Court noted, the worst language the justices had come across. In large part, comfort entering into Division Three for arguments was attributable to Presiding Justice Klein and the way she governed her division.”

Former Research Attorney

Observing Klein from a different perspective was Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Susan Lopez-Giss, who called to mind:

“I first met Judge Klein, at the time, when I was the research attorney for the Los Angeles Municipal Court from 1974-1976.  She was the Presiding Judge of the L.A. Municipal Court and access to her courtroom was across the hall from my assignment in Division 7.  She was responsible for creating the Los Angeles Municipal Court Planning and Research Department which became a national model, as I recall.

“She both impressed and intimidated me with her presence, intelligence and energy.  There were few role models then.  She was certainly one for me.  I had my first child in law school in 1973 and my second while working for the Court in 1975.  I thought—-look and Judge Klein!!!!... maybe I can do it too!!!!  

“She is hardly a person I can compare myself to.  She was such an amazing individual!!  I felt fortunate to have met her, and to have, like all other women attorneys and judges, benefitted from her example.”

Los Angeles County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl noted that it was her “great honor to be sworn into” the State Bar by Klein, saying of her:

“She was an inspiration and a perfect example of the intersection of justice and common sense.”


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