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The Honorable Vaino Spencer

Superior Court Judge Vaino Hassan Spencer was born on July 22, 1920 in Los Angeles, California to Ada Nona and Abdul Hassan. Spencer graduated from Polytechnic High School in Los Angeles in 1938, and went on to receive her A.A. degree from Los Angeles City College in 1949. Spencer earned her L.L.B. degree from Southwestern University School of Law in 1952.

After obtaining her law degree, Spencer worked as a general practice attorney at law in Los Angeles until 1961. She then became the first African American woman to serve on the bench in California as the Municipal Court Judge for the Los Angeles Judicial District. Spencer served in this capacity until 1976, then was appointed as the Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge, a position she held until 1980.

In 1979, Spencer and fellow presiding justice Joan Dempsey Klein, founded the National Association of Women Judges, an organization intended to help promote women candidates on the bench. Spencer and Klein traveled around the country and met with judges, bar leaders, politicians and journalists to discuss the need for more women in the court room. The organization eventually set up a lecture series and established an annual conference for the association’s growing membership.

In 1980, Spencer began serving as the Presiding Judge of the Division One California Court of Appeal, Second Appellate District, a position she held for over twenty years.

Throughout her career, Spencer served on a number of judicial and law oriented boards, including the Judicial Council Justice Planning Committee, the Judicial Council of California, the Los Angeles County Commission on Justice and the California Law Revision Committee. Additionally, Spencer received various accolades for her groundbreaking law work, including the Outstanding Jurist Award in 2001, Metropolitan News-Enterprise’ Person of the Year Award in 1991, and the 1985 Trailblazer Award from the National Association of Business and Professional Women.

Spencer was interviewed by The HistoryMakers on November 22, 2006.

Spencer passed away on October 25, 2016.

Accession Number

A2006.149

Sex

Female

Interview Date

11/22/2006

Last Name

Spencer

Maker Category
Schools

Polytechnic High School

Los Angeles City College

Wadsworth Avenue Elementary School

Thomas Alva Edison Middle School

Southwestern School of Law

First Name

Vaino

Birth City, State, Country

Los Angeles

HM ID

SPE03

Sponsor

Leo Branton, Jr

State

California

Favorite Vacation Destination

Hawaii

Bio Photo
Speakers Bureau Region State

California

Interview Description
Birth Date

7/22/1920

Birth Place Term
Speakers Bureau Region City

Los Angeles

Country

USA

Death Date

10/25/2016

Short Description

State superior court judge The Honorable Vaino Spencer (1920 - 2016 ) served as a Municipal Court Judge for the Los Angeles Judicial District, and was the first African American woman to be appointed as the Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge. She also co-founded the National Association of Women Judges, and later served as the presiding Judge of the Division One California Court of Appeal, Second Appellate District.

Employment

Los Angeles Municipal Court

Self-Employed

Los Angeles County Superior Court

California Court of Appeal for the Second District

Main Sponsor
Favorite Color

Green

Timing Pairs
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DAStories

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/486174">Tape: 1 Slating of The Honorable Vaino Spencer's interview</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/486175">Tape: 1 The Honorable Vaino Spencer lists her favorites</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/486176">Tape: 1 The Honorable Vaino Spencer describes her parents and siblings</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/486177">Tape: 1 The Honorable Vaino Spencer describes her neighborhood in Los Angeles, California</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/486178">Tape: 1 The Honorable Vaino Spencer talks about her early family life</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/486179">Tape: 1 The Honorable Vaino Spencer recalls the role of religion in her childhood</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/486180">Tape: 1 The Honorable Vaino Spencer describes her childhood friends</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/486181">Tape: 2 The Honorable Vaino Spencer remembers Thomas Alva Edison Junior High School in Los Angeles, California</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/486182">Tape: 2 The Honorable Vaino Spencer recalls graduating valedictorian from John H. Francis Polytechnic High School in Los Angeles, California</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/486183">Tape: 2 The Honorable Vaino Spencer recalls her brother's athletic career</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/486184">Tape: 2 The Honorable Vaino Spencer recalls her high school journalism class, pt. 1</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/486185">Tape: 2 The Honorable Vaino Spencer recalls her high school journalism class, pt. 2</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/486186">Tape: 2 The Honorable Vaino Spencer describes Los Angeles' restrictive covenants</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/486187">Tape: 2 The Honorable Vaino Spencer recalls her difficulty finding work in journalism</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/486188">Tape: 2 The Honorable Vaino Spencer recalls her early career in real estate</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/486189">Tape: 3 The Honorable Vaino Spencer describes her real estate career in Los Angeles</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/486190">Tape: 3 The Honorable Vaino Spencer remembers challenging restrictive covenants</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/486191">Tape: 3 The Honorable Vaino Spencer recalls her decision to become an attorney</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/486192">Tape: 3 The Honorable Vaino Spencer remembers studying for the bar exam</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/486193">Tape: 3 The Honorable Vaino Spencer recalls founding a student bar association</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/486194">Tape: 3 The Honorable Vaino Spencer reflects upon the bar exam's low pass rate</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/486195">Tape: 4 The Honorable Vaino Spencer remembers meeting her husband, Lorenzo Spencer</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/486196">Tape: 4 The Honorable Vaino Spencer remembers establishing her legal practice</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/486197">Tape: 4 The Honorable Vaino Spencer recalls the civil rights lawsuits of the 1950s</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/486198">Tape: 4 The Honorable Vaino Spencer talks about the John M. Langston Bar Association</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/486199">Tape: 4 The Honorable Vaino Spencer describes her legal association memberships</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/486200">Tape: 4 The Honorable Vaino Spencer recalls her first judicial appointment</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/486201">Tape: 5 The Honorable Vaino Spencer talks about organizing the Democratic Minority Conference</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/486202">Tape: 5 The Honorable Vaino Spencer recalls campaigning for black candidates for Los Angeles City Council</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/486203">Tape: 5 The Honorable Vaino Spencer recalls becoming California's first black female judge</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/486204">Tape: 5 The Honorable Vaino Spencer recalls how black male lawyers failed to support her appointment as judge</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/486205">Tape: 5 The Honorable Vaino Spencer describes her early judicial career</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/486206">Tape: 5 The Honorable Vaino Spencer reflects upon her early reputation as a judge</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/486207">Tape: 5 The Honorable Vaino Spencer recalls her promotion to the Los Angeles County Superior Court</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/486208">Tape: 5 The Honorable Vaino Spencer describes her tenure on the Los Angeles County Superior Court</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/486209">Tape: 6 The Honorable Vaino Spencer recalls her conflict with a court administrator</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/486210">Tape: 6 The Honorable Vaino Spencer recalls her reelection to the Los Angeles County Superior Court</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/486211">Tape: 6 The Honorable Vaino Spencer recalls joining the California Court of Appeal for the Second District</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/486212">Tape: 6 The Honorable Vaino Spencer recalls the case of Mary M. v. City of Los Angeles</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/486213">Tape: 6 The Honorable Vaino Spencer talks about the conviction of Geronimo Pratt</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/486214">Tape: 6 The Honorable Vaino Spencer recalls vacating Geronimo Pratt's conviction</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/486215">Tape: 6 The Honorable Vaino Spencer describes the bias against defendants</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/486216">Tape: 7 The Honorable Vaino Spencer describes the importance of judicial independence</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/486217">Tape: 7 The Honorable Vaino Spencer describes the threat of special interest groups to the judiciary</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/486218">Tape: 7 The Honorable Vaino Spencer reflects upon the cases she heard as a judge</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/486219">Tape: 7 The Honorable Vaino Spencer describes how she would like to be remembered</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/486220">Tape: 7 The Honorable Vaino Spencer describes her future plans</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/486221">Tape: 7 The Honorable Vaino Spencer narrates her photographs, pt. 1</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/486222">Tape: 7 The Honorable Vaino Spencer narrates her photographs, pt. 2</a>

<a href="https://da.thehistorymakers.org/story/486223">Tape: 8 The Honorable Vaino Spencer narrates her photographs, pt. 3</a>

DASession

1$1

DATape

5$6

DAStory

3$6

DATitle
The Honorable Vaino Spencer recalls becoming California's first black female judge
The Honorable Vaino Spencer recalls vacating Geronimo Pratt's conviction
Transcript
Pat Brown is the governor in 1961, and he elects, chooses you to be the fifth black judge ever in the history of the State of California.$$That's correct.$$All right. Tell us how you felt and what your friends around you were expressing to you, and as you began to look that appointment, what you felt?$$Well, to go back a bit, at that first meeting that I mentioned of the Democratic Minority Conference we had Pat Brown as our guest speaker, and he was so impressed with the participants in that meeting, and what our mission was and so forth, that at that meeting he spoke to my mother [Ada Taylor Hassan] and I didn't know this, mother never told me until years later, he told her that he was gonna, he said, "I'm gonna make your daughter a judge." And so he wanted to appoint me almost from the--he got elected in '58 [1958], and he wanted to appoint me to the, one of the first vacancies. However, his chief of staff, Fred Dutton, who later became very involved in the John Kennedy [President John Fitzgerald Kennedy] administration, he told him that he couldn't because he would make an enemy of the then speaker, Jesse Unruh [Jesse M. Unruh], because of Jesse's antipathy toward me.$$Okay.$$And so that, that went on for some time and Carlton Goodlett [Carlton Benjamin Goodlett] and Leon Washington [Leon H. Washington, Jr.] and Norman Houston [Norman O. Houston] and also Paul Ziffren who was the California representative, who was our national committeeman from California, and he had appointed me to a number of committees. They were all urging Pat Brown to appoint me anyway, and Pat said he just couldn't afford to. He couldn't because he depended on the speaker to get his program through--$$Right.$$--and if he didn't get his program through he would go down as a failure with the governor. He was right; I understood this.$$Right.$$So, finally Pat said to me, he said, "Vaino [HistoryMaker Vaino Spencer], why don't you have lunch with Jesse," he said, "he's a hard-headed old Dutchman, but I'm sure that once he gets to know you he will stop being antagonistic towards you." And I said, "I doubt it (laughter), but okay I will do it." So, I called Jesse and invited him to, to lunch, and my husband [Lorenzo Spencer] I met him at a restaurant adjacent to the Democratic headquarters over on Hollywood Boulevard [Los Angeles, California] and at that time Pat had appointed the fourth black to our courts, and that was Bernard Jefferson and that was in--this all occurred in 1960. So, Jesse said, he said, "There's no question about the fact that we need to bury the hatchet because otherwise," he said, "the governor isn't going to give your group anything," and he said, "he isn't gonna give my group anything." He said, "And he'll be reaching out to someone who has never done anything for the party." So, we did bury the hatchet and--$$Okay, at that luncheon.$$--and that's right, and then the following year at the next vacancy Pat appointed me.$$That's a wonderful story (simultaneous).$$(Simultaneous) So, that's how that came about. And then after that my mother said, "Well I knew it all the time (laughter)."$The case, however, lingered, and Johnnie Cochran and others working on behalf of the defense, and they were working pro bono, they tried for years to unearth additional evidence to get the case reopened even after on appeal it had been, the conviction had been confirmed. And I'll give you a copy of the dissenting opinion that Judge Dunn [George Dunn] did, which I felt was brilliant. So, finally Johnnie Cochran and his team discovered additional evidence. For example, one of the witnesses against Pratt [Geronimo Pratt] had lied and that was known to the prosecutor, and the prosecutor had failed its duty to make that known to the defense. They concealed it from the defense, and it was on that basis that Cochran and his associates were able to get a judge. The case was moved out of Los Angeles County [California] to Orange County [California] because of the sensitivity and because of the involvement of the prior judge. So, this new judge in Orange County who had a reputation of being a very conservative judge, when confronted with this new evidence that the defense had not gotten a fair trial because the prosecutor had withheld this vitally important evidence, which could easily have made a difference. That was--so he granted, he set aside the conviction and granted a new trial.$$Okay.$$And so the matter then came to my court [California Court of Appeal for the Second District], and I received the case together with two of my colleagues and we upheld the trial court saying that without doubt Pratt had not gotten a fair trial. Well, the--$$Was it unanimous?$$It was unanimous, right, and the Supreme Court [Supreme Court of California] affirmed that, and the prosecutor then took the position that it would not retry the case, and I'm glad because it was a terrible, terrible miscarriage of justice.$$And a stain on California justice (simultaneous).$$(Simultaneous) That's right, and it was settled, I think, for about $4 million as I remember.$$Right.$$But that poor man spent all those years, over twenty-five years in prison for something that (simultaneous)--$$(Simultaneous) Four million or--no amount of money.$$But no amount of money--$$Right.$$--would compensate for that.$$I would agree. You've looked at a lot of cases, some here in California, but I imagine you've seen some cases, just read about them in other states, and the number of times where you've seen prosecutors hide evidence that they fully are aware of and, or simply don't acknowledge that DNA results have formed a--taken us down another road--$$That's right.$$--and, and so forth.