Chief Deputy San Francisco City Attorney Therese Stewart, who led the city’s nine-year legal battle for marriage equality, was unanimously confirmed by a state commission to a seat on the California Court of Appeal today.
Stewart, 57, was nominated by Gov. Jerry Brown last month and was approved by the Commission on Judicial Appointments after a 45-minute hearing at the State Building in San Francisco at which five witnesses praised her legal skills and temperament.
The commission members were Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, Attorney General Kamala Harris, and Court of Appeal Justice Anthony Kline.
Kimberly Knill, representing a State Bar committee that evaluates judicial nominees, told the panel Stewart had received that group’s highest rating: “exceptionally well qualified.”
Stewart is known in the legal community for her “deep intellect, even temperament, effectiveness and integrity,” Knill said.
“This should be one of the easiest decisions you have ever made,” Elizabeth Salveson, a former colleague in a private law firm, told the commission.
Stewart told the commission she is aware she is best known publicly for her work on same-sex marriage and lesbian and gay rights, but said she takes the mandate of judicial impartiality very seriously.
“I come before you on behalf of no cause,” she said.
“I am prepared to listen with an open mind and provide justice to all who come before the court,” Stewart told the commission.
Later, in a brief statement to the audience after being confirmed, Stewart thanked Brown for nominating her and joked, “I can’t promise never to rule against the state, but I’ll do my best to do that only when the state is wrong.”
Stewart will join the San Francisco-based First District Court of Appeal, which handles civil and criminal appeals from 12 county superior courts in the Bay Area and northern coastal California. The appellate court’s 20 justices hear appeals in panels of three.
She will be the first openly lesbian justice of the Court of Appeal statewide, according to Brown’s office.
California courts spokesman Peter Allen said Stewart expects to be sworn in to the judicial post in mid-August after winding up some of her work for the city attorney’s office.
Stewart grew up in Marin County and earned her undergraduate degree from Cornell University and law degree from the University of California at Berkeley.
After working for 14 years in a San Francisco law firm, she was hired by City Attorney Dennis Herrera as chief deputy city attorney in 2002.
Herrera said after Stewart was nominated on June 28, “Terry Stewart was my very first hire after I was elected city attorney, and it has been an extraordinary honor to have someone with her intelligence, dedication and passionate commitment to justice serve as my chief deputy for more than a dozen years.”
Stewart was president of the San Francisco Bar Association in 1999.
Her role in leading the city’s nine-year campaign for same-sex marriage began in 2004, when the city attorney’s office sought to defend then-Mayor Gavin Newsom for ordering the city clerk to issue gay and lesbian marriage licenses.
Although the California Supreme Court ruled later that year that Newsom didn’t have the authority to take that action unilaterally, it said that lawsuits challenging a state law banning gay marriage could work their way through the court system.
San Francisco filed one of several lawsuits in which the state high court eventually ruled in May 2008 that the California Constitution provides a right to same-sex marriage.
A voter initiative, Proposition 8 of November 2008, overturned that decision by making the ban part of the state Constitution, and was upheld by the California Supreme Court in 2009.
The battle then switched to federal court in San Francisco, where two same-sex couples filed a 2009 lawsuit alleging the ban violated the U.S. Constitution. San Francisco was allowed to join the federal case as an official party supporting the couple’s challenge.
Lawyers for the couples and San Francisco won rulings from a federal trial judge and federal appeals court striking down Proposition 8. The case ended in 2013 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Proposition 8 sponsors didn’t have the legal standing to appeal those decisions and thus allowed same-sex marriages in the state to resume.
Gayle Cahill, a former colleague in the city attorney’s office, praised Stewart during the confirmation hearing for having been able to “think through deeply” the legal claims of the Proposition 8 supporters.
“She found elegant and effective solutions,” Cahill said.
Julia Cheever, Bay City News