As a young attorney, legendary California Court of Appeal Senior Presiding Justice Joan Dempsey Klein, who died last month at the age of 96, had an epiphany. “I made a commitment to myself,” she said, “that I would devote a certain portion of every day to try to eliminate discrimination against women.”
As anyone who knew her will readily confirm, Justice Klein did indeed fulfill that promise on a daily basis. A smart, savvy, frank and funny force of nature who did not suffer fools gladly but indefatigably mentored legions of women—and men-- Joan enlightened and enlivened the lives of countless litigants, lawyers and judges, but none so much as the women from all walks of life who were the lucky beneficiaries of her pioneering march toward gender equality.
I, for example, first came within Joan’s sphere of influence in 1974, in what might fairly be described as a two-day slumber party at her L.A. home of the first Provisional Board of California Women Lawyers, out of which emerged CWL’s By-Laws and a lifelong friendship.
Over the course of over 50 years as a stanchly feminist judicial leader, Justice Klein authored over 500 opinions, testified before Congress in support of the Supreme Court nomination of Sandra Day O’Connor, and ultimately, as the Senior Presiding Justice of the Court of Appeal, served on the three-member Commission on Judicial Qualifications which confirms all California appellate court nominations. However august her position, Joan continuously contrived to bring up the women and people of color coming up behind her, including as co-founder of California Women Lawyers as well as the National Association of Women Judges and the International Association of Women Judges.
The recipient of numerous prestigious awards, including the ABA’s Margaret Brent Women Lawyers of Achievement Award and the California State Bar’s Witkin Medal, Joan was a fifth generation Californian via her ancestor Maria Refugio de Bernal. Consummately proud of her large and distinguished family, Joan took great pride in the achievements of the wide-flung network of women judges and attorneys whose careers she had nurtured throughout her long and storied career.
To paraphrase Shakespeare, we shall not soon see the like of her again.