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At 87, forever young Joan Dempsey Klein wins another honor and might consider retirement

By Diane Curtis
Staff Writer

“Longevity and hard work” is how Joan Dempsey Klein good-naturedly explains her latest award, the prestigious Bernard E. Witkin Medal from the State Bar of California. After accepting the honor at the bar’s Annual Meeting in Long Beach, the 87-year-old Klein went right back to her more than full-time job as presiding justice of the California Court of Appeal, Second Appellate District, Division Three in Los Angeles, a post she has held since 1978.

Joan Dempsey Klein

Joan Dempsey Klein

“I loved Bernie Witkin,” Klein says of the medal’s namesake, who died in 1995. “He absolutely was a giant among all legal scholars . . . I have tried my darnedest over the years in crafting my opinions to follow his approach in terms of how you state an issue and how you go about resolving it.” His books on the law, she said, are direct and simple to understand yet “highly comprehensive,” “thorough” and “erudite.” “The idea that this is a recognition in his name makes my heart go pitty-pat.”

The Witkin Medal goes to someone “whose outstanding contributions and achievements have enriched the legal profession and exalted the science of jurisprudence.” A resolution signed by former State Bar President William Hebert thanked Klein “for her extraordinary contributions to the legal profession, for her exemplary service to the community, for her courage in upholding the provisions of the United States Constitution, for her unwavering commitment to the concepts of equal access to justice and civil rights.”

Both former State Bar President Holly Fujie and California Court of Appeal Justice Maria Rivera, who were on the panel that chose this year’s recipient, describe Klein as an “iconic” figure. “She’s a legend in California jurisprudence. Besides being a very wise and incredibly hardworking justice, she has been more involved in community activities, in bar activities, than any judge I know,” said Fujie.

“She’s such a great leader and such an inspiring role model and at the same time she is so modest and so ready to acknowledge everybody but herself. It’s a wonderful combination,” said Rivera, who added that she is awed by the number of Klein’s published opinions ― 507. “It’s what I call a very hefty share of excellent legal scholarship that’s been added to our California appellate courts.”

A graduate of UCLA law school, Klein first worked in the attorney general’s office. She then was appointed to the municipal court by Gov. Pat Brown, where she cleaned up a traffic court that had been known for getting tickets fixed, started a countywide Bail by Mail program and did one of the first major studies on unification of the courts. She was then elected to the superior court. In 1978, Gov. Jerry Brown appointed her presiding justice in the Los Angeles appellate court, where she handles civil, criminal, juvenile and dependency matters along with her administrative duties.

The first graduate of UCLA law school to be appointed to the bench, Klein’s list of honors and accomplishments is considerable, but she may be best known for founding and leading professional organizations for women lawyers and judges. She was founding president of California Women Lawyers (CWL), the largest such organization in the nation, which combats gender bias in the courts, supports legislation and court decisions for women’s and children’s rights and advocates for greater diversity in the profession, and she co-founded and was first president of the National Association for Women Judges (NAWJ), the leading voice for women jurists.

Klein says it’s the difference between night and day in the way women are treated now as compared to when she started both as a lawyer and judge. In a fascinating, often amusing interview that is part of the California Legacy Project, Klein talks about her life, from her difficult childhood with no encouragement or support to brief careers as a riveter in San Diego and Buster Crabbe swimmer in Europe to her life as a lawyer and judge. She recalls “overt sexual discrimination” that included crude remarks as well as “getting chased around the mulberry bush.” There was no moral support or role models, no place to go to get career advice or a pat on the back or just a conversation about job referrals. “Men had all these support systems in place and have had for years and years and years,” she said in her interview with the Bar Journal. “It’s very rewarding to see the impact of these two organizations (CWL and NAWJ) and how they’ve provided support ― moral support as well as professional support.” NAWJ went global with the creation of the International Association of Women Judges.

Rivera said the support for women on the bench, “especially in the early years when there were very few and you could feel like the Lone Ranger,” has been vital for many women, as has been the networking and being able to get together on a regional and national scale. But a number of important initiatives also come from the association, such as help for women prisoners, collaborative justice programs and promotion of women of color as lawyers and judges.

Klein testified before Congress on behalf of the nomination of Sandra Day O’Connor to the Supreme Court, served as U.S. representative at a conference on women sponsored by the Puerto Rican Bar Association and was chair of a California Highway Patrol committee on the employment of women as CHP officers.

She has had awards named in her honor and has herself received the prestigious Margaret Brent Women Lawyers of Achievement Award and been named Person of the Year by the Metropolitan News-Enterprise, Appellate Justice of the Year by the Los Angeles Trial Lawyers Association and Woman of the Year by the Los Angeles Times.

And she did all this while raising five children, two sons from her first marriage and three daughters of her second husband. “I had full-time household help and I could not have done it without that,” says Klein, who now also has eight grandchildren. Even with household help, how does she do it? she is asked. “I have a lot of energy and I’ve had magnificent health all my life which has enabled me to do things that, to other people, sound like too much.” She has given up tennis and beach volleyball because of her knees but she walks two miles a day and swims regularly.

As someone who has kept active on the job far longer than most of the people she started out with, it wouldn’t surprise many of her colleagues if Klein never stopped working. But she says she is finally considering retirement. “I was appointed by Jerry Brown as the first female presiding justice in the State of California and I am the senior presiding justice in the State of California, and I feel obligated to give him my position. So I will retire in time for him to find my replacement.” That will mean retirement sometime before 2014 ― “unless he decides to run again,” she adds.