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Vaino Spencer, California’s First Black Female Judge, Dies at 96

Vaino Spencer, California's first Black female judge. Image courtesy of Southwestern Law School via AP.

Vaino Spencer, California’s first Black female judge. Image courtesy of Southwestern Law School via AP.

California’s first Black female judge and one of the longest serving jurists in state history passed away Tuesday at the age of 96, the Associated Press reports.

Vaino Spencer died of natural causes in her sleep at her Los Angeles home Oct. 25, according to her niece, Fatimah Gilliam.

Spencer was born in Los Angeles July 22, 1920 and graduated from Polytechnic High School in 1938. The Root reports that she went on to earn her associate’s degree from Los Angeles City College in 1949 and then a bachelor of law degree from Southwestern School of Law in 1952.

After working as a general-practice attorney for a few years, Spencer was appointed to Los Angeles Municipal Court judge in 1961. She became the first Black woman to ever serve on the bench. The former lawyer went on to serve as Los Angeles County Superior Court judge in 1976 and spent nearly 20 years presiding over state appeals court before her retirement in 2007, the Associated Press reports.

Spencer served a total of 46 years on the bench.

In the midst of her work as a judge, Spencer and fellow judge Joan Dempsey Klein founded the National Association of Judges in 1969 to encourage the promotion of female judges to the bench. She also founded the Black Women Lawyers Association of Los Angeles.

Gilliam remembered her aunt as a “a trailblazer and a self-made woman in an era when there were few opportunities for women and people of color.”

California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye expressed similar sentiments, calling Spencer a “double pioneer” for women in law.

“[She was] a pioneer for women on the bench and a pioneer for people of color on the bench in Los Angeles, statewide, and nationally,” Cantil-Sakauye said, noting that it was Spencer’s groundwork that ultimately led her to consider a career in law.

“She leaves a legacy as a jurist in her opinions and as a role model in the person she was,” she added.

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