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Newsom nominates state Supreme Court’s first Latina justice to take over as chief

San Francisco Chronicle logo San Francisco Chronicle 8/10/2022 By Bob Egelko

Patricia Guerrero, who became the California Supreme Court’s first Latina justice when Gov. Gavin Newsom appointed her in March, was nominated by Newsom on Wednesday to succeed retiring Tani Cantil-Sakauye as the court's chief justice. She would become the third woman to lead the court in its 173-year history.

To fill Guerrero's seat on the court, Newsom nominated Kelli Evans, who had been an attorney in the governor's office before he appointed her to the Alameda County Superior Court last year. As his chief deputy legal affairs secretary, Newsom said, Evans helped to draft the moratorium on executions that the governor declared shortly after taking office in 2019.

Evans is a lesbian, lives with her wife and their daughter, and would become the court’s second openly LGBTQ justice, along with Martin Jenkins, appointed by Newsom in 2020. She would also be the current court’s third Black justice, along with Jenkins and Leondra Kruger.

Cantil-Sakauye, appointed by Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to lead the court in 2011, announced July 27 that she would not seek a new 12-year term in January and would retire after 32 years as a judge.

A former prosecutor with a relatively moderate record as a jurist, she is one of two Republican appointees on the seven-member court, and one of four women. She has been a strong advocate of reducing or eliminating cash bail for defendants awaiting trial, and joined the court’s order prohibiting judges in most cases from setting bail in amounts a defendant cannot afford.

Guerrero, 50, is the daughter of immigrants from Mexico who became an advocate for immigrants as a lawyer. Born in Brawley (Imperial County), she started working at a grocery store at age 16, worked her way through UC Berkeley and Stanford Law School, then joined a law firm in 1997. She did unpaid work on immigration cases as an attorney, helping applicants for asylum, and on housing discrimination cases, and was on the advisory board of the American Bar Association’s Immigration Justice Project, which provides legal services to immigrants.

Gov. Jerry Brown appointed her to the San Diego County Superior Court in 2013 and to the Fourth District Court of Appeal in 2017. One of her appellate rulings, in August 2020, allowed Amazon to be sued for defects in a product that was advertised on its website and stored and shipped by its warehouse, a computer laptop battery that exploded and seriously burned a woman. Although Amazon did not manufacture the battery, it was “pivotal in bringing the product ... to the consumer,” Guerrero wrote in a 3-0 decision.

Since her confirmation to the state’s high court in March, Guerrero has joined majority opinions but has not issued a separate majority or dissenting opinion.

“If confirmed, I look forward to continuing the strides the court has made under Chief Justice Cantil-Sakauye to expand equal access to justice and create a fairer justice system for all Californians,” Guerrero said in a statement released by Newsom’s office. Her confirmation will be considered by the Commission on Judicial Appointments, led by Cantil-Sakauye, and Guerrero would then appear on the November ballot to seek voter approval for a 12-year term.

Evans, 53, also had humble beginnings, growing up in a public housing project and then in an apartment with federal funding, according to Newsom’s office. While working 20 hours a week to support her family, she graduated near the top of her class in high school, then attended Stanford and UC Davis Law School, where she received an award for public service.

“She has devoted her professional life - and her very heart and soul - to social justice for all and is ideally suited for service on the state’s highest court,” said the UC Davis law school dean, Kevin Johnson.

She was a public defender in Sacramento County from 1995 to 1998 while also serving as an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, where she returned as associate director in 2010. She also spent three years in the U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and three years in a State Bar administrative office and was a member of court-appointed monitoring teams for the Oakland and Cleveland police departments before joining Newsom’s legal staff in 2019.

He appointed her to the Superior Court in Oakland, her hometown, in July 2021.

“I have worked my entire career to promote equality and access to justice and to protect the rights of some of society's most disenfranchised members,” Evans said in a statement issued by Newsom’s office.

The gay-rights group Equality California said Evans’ nomination “sends an important message to the rest of the country at a time when LGBTQ+ people, women and communities of color are under attack.”

Bob Egelko is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: begelko@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @BobEgelko

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