Hon. Vaino Spencer '52


Judge, California Court of Appeal, Second Appellate District, Division One

A trailblazer for women and African Americans in the legal profession, Vaino Spencer served as Presiding Justice of the California Court of Appeal, Second Appellate District, Division One. She retired in 2007, after a distinguished 46-year career on the bench. She was the third black woman in California to pass the State Bar exam and the third to open a law practice in Los Angeles. However, it was her appointment to the Los Angeles Municipal Court in 1961 that confirmed her status as a true pioneer—when she became California's first black woman judge, and the third in the nation. Governor Jerry Brown appointed Spencer to the Superior Court in 1976, and four years later he elevated her to the Court of Appeal.

Justice Spencer was active in the Civil Rights movement and a leader in the community. She is also recognized for her groundbreaking efforts in support of gender equity in the legal profession and to increase the numbers of women appointed to the bench. In the 1970s, she founded the Black Women Lawyers Association, and co-founded the National Association of Women Judges (NAWJ) with Justice Joan Dempsey Klein. In 2007, the NAWJ awarded the first Justice Vaino Spencer Leadership Award in her honor. When Governor Edmund G. “Pat” Brown named Vaino Spencer to the Los Angeles Municipal Court, she had not yet reached the 10th Anniversary of her Southwestern graduation.  

Beyond the courtroom, Justice Spencer served on the California Law Revision Commission, National Judicial Council, Judicial Council of California, and Attorney General's Advisory Committee on Constitutional Rights, and was an officer and director of the Los Angeles County Commission on Justice. She held leadership posts in over two dozen professional and community organizations including the Democratic State and County Central Committees, the Democratic Minority Conference, the California Mental Health Association, the Neighborhood Economic Development Corporation, the NAACP Executive Board, the National Bar Association, and the Langston Bar Association.

Over the years, Justice Vaino Spencer remained closely involved with Southwestern. She served on the boards of the Alumni Association, the Tom Bradley Scholarship Endowment Fund, and the planning committee for the Gilbert and Theresa Lindsay Scholarship Endowment Fund. She received the "Outstanding Judicial Officer" award from Southwestern in 1989, and an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from the law school in 1996. 

Her numerous other honors include initiation into the Langston Bar Association Hall of Fame (1991); Honoree of the Year (1992) from the National Association of Women Judges; the Lifetime Achievement Award (1991) from the Judicial Council of the National Bar Association; the Trailblazer Award (1985) from the National Association of Business and Professional Women; the Bernard Jefferson Appellate Justice Award (1983) from the California Association of Black Lawyers; and the Judge Ernestine Stahlhut Award (1976) from the Los Angeles Women Lawyers Association.