Kathryn Werdegar, Retired Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of California. Upon her retirement in August 2017, Justice Werdegar was the Court’s longest-serving member, having served as an associate justice for 23 years.
"I had no particular role models growing up that would have led me to having a career, as most women at that time did not have one. However, as a young adult after graduating from college I worked at UCSF hospital and there observed two female physicians. It was the first time I realized (remember this was in the late 1950s) that woman could do something other than be secretaries or teachers or airline hostesses ("stewardesses" in those days). Previously I had never heard of a female physician or lawyer or professor, etc. Observing them did inspire me to think about graduate school--although not medicine! They really were a revelation. Role models are critical. Once I decided to go to graduate school my choice of law was somewhat arbitrary; I considered various graduate programs, but ultimately settled on law because it seemed most practical. Once I started law school it was clear I had made the right choice, as I enjoyed it and excelled."
"One important message has been to 'fake it until you make it,' in other words, carry on even if you feel inadequate, which is good advice because we often feel inadequate even when we're not."
In her time on the high court, she was among the most powerful voices in California law, including authoring at least 25 major opinion across a range of environmental law issues. She is well known for her numerous opinions that interpret and apply the most important environmental law in the state, the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), requiring state and local agencies to identify their impact on the environment and avoid or mitigate negative effects where feasible. In addition to her environmental opinions, she authored the court’s majority opinion in the 1996 case ruling that landlords cannot refuse to rent to unmarried couples and the court’s ruling that bans on same-sex marriage are unconstitutional.
Born in San Francisco, Justice Werdegar attended Wellesley College and received her B.A. with honors from the University of California at Berkeley. She attended the University of California School of Law (Boalt Hall) before completing her J.D. at George Washington University Law School. At the University of California School of Law she was first in her class and the first woman to be elected editor-in-chief of the California Law Review, and at GWU graduated as valedictorian.
After her graduation from Boalt Hall in 1962, Justice Werdegar served in the Civil Rights Division of the United States Department of Justice. Prior to her appointment to the Court, she held several key positions, including director of the criminal law division of California Continuing Education of the Bar, senior staff attorney with the California Court of Appeal and the California Supreme Court, and professor and Associate Dean of Academic and Student Affairs at the University of San Francisco School of Law. She was appointed Associate Justice of the California Court of Appeal, First District in 1991, before being sworn into the Supreme Court in 1994 by Governor Pete Wilson.
She is the recipient of numerous awards, including five American Jurisprudence Awards. Her publications focus on California criminal procedure, diversity in the judicial system, and the relationship between the courts and private alternative dispute resolution. When Justice Werdegar joined the state Supreme Court, she was only the third woman to serve - when she retired, the Court included four women and three men.
On her proudest accomplishments--
"As a parent of two sons, I have to say my proudest accomplishment -- although I can't take full credit for it--and deepest gratification is that they both are fine human beings; as a parent, nothing is more important. Professionally, I am proud of some of the decisions I authored for the California Supreme Court recognizing and enforcing the rights of disfavored groups and implementing California's environmental protection laws, as well as some of the dissents I authored that later were upheld by the United States Supreme Court or adopted by the California legislature."
Interview by 1460 Women, photo via Menlo School