The Passing of Judge Vaino Hassan Spencer; a Trailblazer for African American Women in the Judiciary
Today, we remember the legacy of Judge Vaino Hassan Spencer who has passed away on October 25, 2016 at the age of 96, and recognize her as an individual who broke barriers in the legal field. Judge Spencer was the first African-American woman appointed to a judgeship in California and co-founded the Black Women Lawyers Association and the National Association of Women Judges. Her passing reminds us to recognize, honor, and thank, not only Judge Spencer, but also all African-American and minority women for their contributions to the legal community.
Judge Vaino Hassan Spencer has been a trailblazer since the beginning of her career. At the age of 32 she became the third African American woman to be admitted to the California State Bar. She worked as a general practice attorney and served on various appointive boards and commissions. On her journey to make a difference in the legal profession, Judge Spencer became involved in state politics. She was a member of the California Democratic Central Committee from 1958 to 1960.
In 1961, Governor Pat Brown appointed her Municipal Court judge for the Los Angeles Judicial District. This made Judge Spencer the first African American woman to serve on the bench in California, and the third black female judge in the history of the United States.
Judge Spencer had a passion for legal and civil rights and devoted much of her time to endeavors supporting those rights in the 1960s. Some of her endeavors included serving on the California Attorney General’s Committee on Constitutional Rights, serving on the board of directors of the National Committee Against Discrimination in Housing, and becoming a member of the life membership committee of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in order to help advance their mission.
In 1976, Governor Jerry Brown appointed Judge Spencer to the Los Angeles County Superior Court. At the time Judge Spencer became a Superior Court Judge, 15 states did not have a single woman judge. Furthermore, there were only 28 female judges in the federal court system. Seeing the lack of female representation in the judiciary, Judge Spencer helped established the National Association of Women Judges in 1979. The mission of the National Association of Women Judges was to increase the number of women in state and federal judiciaries. This organization catapulted Judge Spencer into becoming a pioneer for women on the bench, and people of color on the bench.
Judge Spencer ended her career by serving as Presiding Judge of the Division One California Court of Appeal, Second Appellate District, which she began in 1980. After holding this position for over 20 years, she retired in September of 2007. Judge Spencer served the judiciary in California for a total of 46 years.
Judge Spencer won many honors for her work, a few of which are: the Trailblazer Award from the National Association of Business and Professional Women, the Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Bar Association in 1991, and a honorary Doctor of Law degree from Southwestern Law School.
Everything that Judge Spencer has accomplished highlights the importance of challenging ingrained stereotypes and providing support to other women. Despite dealing with the daily stresses of working in the legal field and supporting families, minority women have to also overcome many more obstacles and stereotypes than the ordinary attorney or judge. In addition to these obstacles, self-imposed barriers are often presented for women who are trying to advance their careers, which is why supporting other minority women is so essential to the individual success of our group as a whole.
In this time of unrest, Judge Vaino Hassan Spencer’s passion of promoting gender and racial equality should inspire us to continue down her path to better our future and the future of our children.
Shanly Hopkins is a business and real estate attorney at Aguirre Allen Law, and wrote this on behalf of Lawyers Club’s Diverse Women’s Committee