Jun 03, 2017
A Brief History of Women on the Marin Bench
Jun 03, 2017
By The Honorable Verna Adams
On Friday, May 12, 2017, all of the active female Marin County Superior Court Judges gathered with our matriarch, Judge Beverly Bloch Savitt (Ret.) for her birthday party. This occasion sparked my interest about the history of the Marin County Superior Court. 104 years elapsed between the election of our first Superior Court Judge in 1879 and 1983, when Bev Savitt and Lynn Taylor together shattered the glass ceiling.
OK, OK, there are actually no glass ceilings at the civic center, but that phrase has more cachet than the more accurate “Plexiglas dome.” I searched for a roster of all the Marin Superior Court judges, from the beginning. First lesson: there is no such record, but I am working on it. Our CEO’s office has a roster dating from the Eisenhower administration, but I wanted to go back to the 19th Century.
In my research so far, I have learned a few fun facts. Before the California Constitution of 1879 was enacted, we did not have a Superior Court. We had a District Court, the first judge of which was appointed in 1849 by the military. Our district—comprising Marin, Sonoma, Napa, Solano, and Mendocino (whew!)—had one judge. The first was the hapless Stephen Cooper—I say hapless because I can only imagine dispensing justice over five rather large counties. Our first Marin courthouse was an adobe room at Mission San Rafael (which back then was more-or-less at the location of the McDonald’s on Merrydale Road, according to a weed-choked plaque near the North San Pedro Road off-ramp).
Our first actual Marin County Superior Court judge was Thomas J. Bowers, who was elected pursuant to the 1879 Constitution. We had just one judge at a time until 1950, when the long-serving Edward Butler (circa 1924-1950) was joined by Jordan Martinelli.
Fast forward to 1982. During his first term, Governor Jerry Brown appointed Beverly Savitt to the Superior Court. Judge Lynn O’Malley Taylor was elected to the Municipal Court. Both were sworn in on January 1, 1983.
Thus, in about one hour, Marin welcomed its first two female judges. It had taken 104 years.
In the years since Judges Savitt and Taylor took office, we have had eight women on the Marin County Superior Court. In addition to Judge Savitt and Judge Taylor (who won election to Superior Court in 1991), they are, in chronological order: Lynn Duryee (appointed to Municipal Court in 1993, elevated to Superior Court with court consolidation in 1998); Verna Adams (1999); Faye D’Opal (2005); Kelly Simmons (2005); Beverly Wood (2013); and Sheila Lichtblau (2017).
Judges Savitt, Taylor, Duryee and D’Opal are now retired, but they remain active: Lynn Duryee is busy at JAMS, Lynn Taylor has been sitting by assignment in San Francisco for years, Judge D’Opal is spending time with her grandchildren, and Judge Savitt (at 91) has stepped back from her mediation practice and is involved in a number of community activities.
Since 1982, our Superior Court operations have changed a great deal. Our bench has become more diverse and our approach to case management has become more varied as well. We have specialty courts and a robust ADR program for cases of every variety. But some things do not change. As a retired female judge once said, “A wise old man and a wise old woman will probably come to the same decision.” One thing that definitely hasn’t changed: none of us has to make any decisions about what to wear at work.
My rough count of the gender allocation of about 47 Marin County Superior Court Judges since 1879 is: Males: 39; Females: 8. I don’t think it will take 104 more years for us women to get to 50 percent.
Judge Verna A. Adams was appointed to the Marin County Superior Court in 1999. She earned her bachelor's degree from Wellesley College and her law degree from Stanford University.