Our Southern California LGBTQ+ Employee Network, one of several diversity and inclusion networks at O’Melveny, is pleased to share a series of spotlights on important figures and events in LGBTQ+ history throughout Pride Month.
Pride Month Spotlight: Justice Martin J. Jenkins
Justice Martin J. Jenkins is the third African American and first openly gay man to sit on the California Supreme Court. A humanitarian as well as a judge, Justice Jenkins focuses much of his time outside work on mentoring and funding education for inner city youth in the San Francisco Bay Area. He advocates that authenticity is the greatest gift a person can give themselves.
Justice Jenkins started his post-college career as a rookie cornerback for the Seattle Seahawks in 1977. But shortly into this stint in the NFL, he knew it wasn’t his destiny; he wanted to further his education and give back to the community. So he left football to pursue the law, enrolling at the University of San Francisco three weeks into the semester. Justice Jenkins was drawn towards law partly because of the “competent, humble, and compassionate” attorney who had helped his mother many years before, taking her case for free. The son of a janitor and a nurse, Justice Jenkins described himself as a hard working law student but not confident in the world of lawyers, which was entirely new to him. Through diligent work, however, he graduated with honors and awards. And he immediately sought to apply his ethics and passion to his legal career, becoming a prosecutor at the Alameda County District Attorney’s office and later at the civil rights division of the U.S. Justice Department, where he handled racial violence and police misconduct cases.
Even before his appointment to California’s highest court, Justice Jenkins had a storied judicial career. He served on the Oakland Municipal Court from 1989 to 1992 when he was elevated to the Alameda County Superior Court, where he eventually became the presiding judge of the juvenile division. In 1997, President Bill Clinton appointed Justice Jenkins to the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, before he was appointed as an associate justice on the California Court of Appeal for the First District in San Francisco in 2008. In late 2020, Governor Gavin Newsom nominated Justice Jenkins to the California Supreme Court. Following a unanimous confirmation, he became the third African American man (the first in 29 years) and first openly gay man to serve on the Court.
During his career, Justice Jenkins has been involved in numerous civic, religious, and charitable organizations serving youth in the San Francisco Bay Area, including starting a charter school in West Oakland, serving as a mentor to black high school students in San Francisco, and speaking regularly to inner city high school and middle school students.
Throughout college, the NFL, and law school, Jenkins “compartmentalized” his identity as a gay man, “pressing it down” until it felt nonexistent—but the truth never went away. In ascending to California’s highest court as an openly gay man, Justice Jenkins noted that there were others who blazed this trail for him: some were qualified for this position but were passed over because of their open identity; others were selected, but could only embody their true selves behind closed doors. When Justice Jenkins accepted the American Bar Association’s Stonewall Award this past February, he implored young people to learn from him: describing his identity as a gay man as perhaps the greatest challenge of his life, Jenkins asked that young people understand that his achievements were not made in spite of his struggles, but because of them—“living a life of authenticity is the greatest gift you can give yourself.