California Supreme Court Associate Justice Joyce Kennard, during 2009 arguments over state's same-sex marriage ban, Proposition 8. (Getty Images)
California Supreme Court Associate Justice Joyce Kennard, during 2009 arguments over state’s same-sex marriage ban, Proposition 8. (Getty Images)

Joyce Kennard, an associate justice on the California Supreme Court who is the tribunal’s longest-serving member, has announced she’ll step down in April.

Kennard, 72, informed Gov. Jerry Brown of her decision on Tuesday. She told legal affairs reporter Howard Mintz of the San Jose Mercury News: “It is with a heavy heart I’m saying goodbye. … April 5 will be 25 years. That’s a quarter of a century. That’s a long, long time.” She sounded the same theme in an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle’s Bob Egelko: “I think it’s time to start a new chapter. I’ve been wedded to my work, working seven days a week. … I’d like to finally make time for my long-neglected friends.”

Republican Gov. George Deukmejian appointed her to the court in 1989. Here’s how the Los Angeles Times’ legal affairs reporter, Maura Dolan, briefly sizes up Kennard’s life and career:

… She has been regarded as a highly independent judge, often siding with the underdog, and is one of the court’s most vocal members during oral arguments.

Kennard was born in Indonesia to parents who were of Dutch, Indonesian, Chinese and German descent and suffered an impoverished childhood. She was confined to an internment camp on the Indonesian island of Java during the Japanese occupation of the region. A tumor required doctors to amputate her right leg above the knee when she was in her teens, and she walks with a prosthesis and a cane.

At 20, she moved to the U.S. and landed work as a secretary. With a $5,000 bequest from her mother and scholarships, she started her formal education at Pasadena City College and earned her law degree and a master’s degree in public administration from USC. She was hired as a deputy attorney general for the state before being appointed as a jurist, moving from Los Angeles County’s Municipal Court to Superior Court to a court of appeal and finally to the California Supreme Court. …

… Deukmejian appointed Kennard to the court after he helped spearhead a campaign to oust Chief Justice Rose Bird and two other liberal justices. But Kennard’s decision-making did not reflect Deukmejian’s conservative views. She enjoyed a behind-the-scenes friendship with the late Bird and voted so often with the liberal late Justice Stanley Mosk that the pair were dubbed “the odd couple.”

She frequently ruled in favor of gay rights, joining the 4-3 majority that overturned California’s ban on same-sex marriage in 2008. She also showed a willingness to rule for defendants over prosecutors and workers over employers.

The Merc’s Howard Mintz added this context:

Former Chief Justice Ronald George, who spent many years on the court with Kennard, agreed with the assessment of legal scholars who’ve long described her as unpredictable and independent.

“She certainly did not have any specific agenda or particular dogma she adhered to,” George said. …

… Kennard was famous for interjecting questions during oral arguments before the Supreme Court, often turning them into lengthy speeches before pointing her finger at a lawyer and demanding an answer. She was unpredictable in her rulings, and would come down on the more liberal side of social issues before the court. …

… Among her other notable cases was a 2002 ruling in which she found against Nike, concluding that businesses could be held liable for public statements regarding labor practices as commercial business speech.

And the Chronicle’s Egelko says:

In a lone dissent from a 1993 ruling upholding surrogate-motherhood contracts in California, Kennard chided the all-male majority and said a pregnant woman “is more than a mere container or breeding animal; she is a conscious agent of creation.”

She was later part of moderate-to-liberal majorities that struck down a state law requiring parental consent for minors’ abortions and California’s ban on same-sex marriage. …

… She also wrote majority opinions upholding a state campaign finance disclosure law and allowing the victim of a rape by a police officer to sue the city.

In a statement, Brown said, “”The state and its people have been well served by Justice Kennard, and her independence and intellectual fortitude have left a lasting mark on the court.”

The governor, who in 2011 appointed former UC Berkeley Law Professor Goodwin Liu, will get to name his second justice to the court.


Dan Brekke

Dan Brekke is a blogger, reporter and editor for KQED News, responsible for online breaking news coverage of topics ranging from California water issues to the Bay Area's transportation challenges. In a newsroom career that began in Chicago in 1972, Dan has worked as a city and foreign/national editor for The San Francisco Examiner, editor at Wired News, deputy editor at Wired magazine, managing editor at TechTV as well as for several Web startups.

Since joining KQED in 2007, Dan has reported, edited and produced both radio and online features and breaking news pieces. He has shared in two Society of Professional Journalists Norcal Excellence in Journalism awards — for his 2012 reporting on a KQED Science series on water and power in California, and in 2014, for KQED's comprehensive reporting on the south Napa earthquake.

In addition to his 44 years of on-the-job education, Dan is a lifelong student of history and is still pursuing an undergraduate degree.

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