Thursday, March 21, 2019
African American Women Appeal Court Justices
By Yussuf Simmonds (Managing Editor)
Published March 29, 2012

“African American Women Appeal Court Justices”


JUSTICE ARLEIGH M. WOODS was the first Black woman to be appointed to the California Second Appellate District Court of Appeal; she served in the Court’s Division Four and Division Seven during her 15-year tenure and also served as the presiding justice.  She came to the appeals court after having served as a judge in the Los Angeles Superior Court from 1976 to 1980.   Prior to her appointment as a judge, she was in private practice in Los Angeles.

Born in Los Angeles, Woods earned B.S. degree in 1950 at Chapman College and her law degree at Southwestern University in 1953.  The following year, she was admitted to the California State Bar.  While in private practice, she specialized in civil law dealing with Construction, Medical Issues, Labor and Workers’ Compensation as a partner at Levy, Koszdin & Woods.  In addition, she handled all tort litigation and employment law regarding wrongful termination, insurance coverage conflicts, environmental issues and real property. 

With a diverse background in general and complex civil litigation, Woods brought solid legal experience to the bench when she was first appointed to the then Los Angeles Municipal Court by former governor, Edmund “Jerry” Brown.  As a Los Angeles Superior Court judge, Woods handled hundreds of settlement conferences in the civil trial department; directed the pilot program for Fast Track, Law and Motions, and civil trials; and also served as the supervising Judge of the North Central District.

In March 1980, Judge Woods was appointed to Second Appellate District as an associate justice.  During her tenure in the appeals court, she created a settlement program and used her previous experience as an expert in settlement cases to function in a similar capacity.  She was named “Appellate Justice of the Year” by the California Trial Lawyers Association in 1983, and in 1989, was honored by the Los Angeles Trial Lawyers Association.  She earned an LL.M (Master of Laws) degree from the University of Virginia in 1984.

Justice Woods was a member of the California Commission on Judicial Performance from 1986 to 1993, serving as chairwoman of the commission from 1988 to 1993.  She authored hundreds of published opinions while on the Court of Appeal and lectured at legal and judicial seminars on various aspects of civil law, discovery and writs.  She has received numerous awards and honors, and has volunteered as a board member of the American Cancer Research Foundation and the Constitutional Rights Foundation. 

Since retiring from the bench, Woods has served as a mediator/settlement judge.  Her clients have praised her ability to quickly and thoroughly read and comprehend briefs, and her devotion to detail and consistent fairness.   She was recently selected as one of the top twenty mediators in California by the prestigious Daily Journal.


JUSTICE VAINO SPENCER, now retired, served as an attorney, Judge, Justice and Pioneer of Women’s Rights.  When she retired from the Second Appellate Division of the California Court of Appeal in 2007, she had been one of the longest-serving judges in California history.  Governor Edmund “Jerry” Brown, appointed Judge Spencer to the Court of Appeal August1980.

She was born in Los Angeles, attended L.A.’s elementary and high school, and then went to Los Angeles City College where she graduated summa cum laude.  She received her law degree at Southwestern University School of Law in 1952 and was admitted to the Bar the same year, the third African American woman to be so distinguished.  She went into private practice focusing on civil litigation until she was appointed a Municipal Court judge in 1961 by Governor Edmund “Pat” Brown.  Judge Spencer presided over court and jury trials in civil, criminal, traffic and small claims cases.

In 1976, Governor Edmund “Jerry” Brown elevated Judge Spencer to the Los Angeles Superior Court where she was again assigned not only civil and criminal cases, but also juvenile and family law matters until 1980, when she ascended to the California Appeals Court – the second Black woman to be so appointed.  During her time on the bench, she was engaged in many civic causes and community activities.  She became a member of the California Law Revision Commission, the Judicial Council of California, the Attorney General’s Advisory Committee and co-founded the National Association of Women Judges. 

Justice Spencer was the only woman among the Brotherhood Crusade’s list of Pioneers of Black Legal Leadership in 1979 – which including legal scholars such as the late Justice Wiley Manuel, Edwin Jefferson, Earl Broady, Sr. and Johnnie Cochran – who were honored, “For establishing a level of excellence in the legal field that has given a new breath of confidence and security to Black Americans everywhere and for providing unparalleled leadership in fighting for true and equal justice under the law.”

Division One, over which she presided, was reported to be the most efficient division in the Second Appellate District, the largest appellate district in the state. That appeared to be consistent with her judicial ethic and her “no-nonsense” judicial, yet liberal temperament.  At one time, GOP members targeted her for ouster from the bench. 

As a justice in the appeal court, though Justice Spencer had the ability to publish some of her opinions, reports show that in a two-year period – between 1996 and 1998 – she only published 11 opinions, and some of those were at the parties’ request.  She has never been tagged by any controversial ideological dogma or agenda.  In one of her decisions, “Potvin v. Metropolitan Life Insurance, she ruled, “a doctor has a common law right to fair procedure before an insurance company can terminate his membership in a health provider network, even when the membership is at will.”  Without going into the merits of the case, insurance companies wield enormous power in society and normally have had their way in many judicial arenas except in “Potvin.”

Justice Spencer blazed a trail, though particularly significant for women of color, can easily be seen as a tribute to all women.  Former Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke – herself a lawyer – has given much of the credit for her own entry into the field to Justice Spencer, and so do many other women, in general.

She typified the characteristics of many African American judges and justices: they did not plan on retiring.  She, like the others, saw herself as the protector and defender of the rights of African Americans, the down-trodden, the forgotten and the voiceless, and stayed “overtime on the bench” to rid society of the scourge of in all of its dimensions.  She knew that though this society has made progress, via major steps taken by the Courts, it still has a long way to go. 


JUSTICE CANDACE COOPER recently stepped down from Division Eight of California Second Appellate District after almost 28 years on the bench.  She had served on the Court of Appeals since 1999 and also as Presiding Justice since 2001.  Before ascending to the appeals court, she served on the Los Angeles Superior Court for 12 years and on the then Municipal Court since 1980.

She was born in Los Angeles and graduated from Susan Miller Dorsey High School. Cooper then went on to earn her B.A. summa cum laude in 1970 and also her law degree in 1973 from USC.  She launched her legal career in private practice as an associate at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher the following year after being admitted to the California State Bar.

She was first appointed to the Los Angeles Municipal Court by Governor Edmund “Jerry” Brown in 1980 where she handled complex felony preliminary hearings including numerous high publicity cases.  Then in 1987, Governor George Deukmejian appointed Judge Cooper to the superior court.  There she handled cases ranging from felony criminal and death penalty trials to juvenile dependency and delinquency, and civil trials. 

She also served as supervising judge of the West District, and as president of the California Judges Association. Judge Cooper was also active in the National Association of Women Judges, the California Association of Black Lawyers, the California Women Lawyers Association, and other national, state and local bar groups. Judge Cooper has been an outspoken advocate of diversity on the bench and State Bar. 

Governor Gray Davis tapped Judge Cooper to become a justice on Division Two of the Second Appellate District in 1999 in his first group of judicial appointments. Two years later, he selected her to become presiding justice of the newly created Division Eight.

Justice Cooper has been honored by many organizations for her work on and off the bench including her work in education and her professional involvements.  She has been a frequent teacher and lecturer at judicial education courses for new and experienced judges.  In addition, she has received awards by the Women Lawyers Association of Los Angeles, the Langston Bar Association, USC Alumni Association, the Los Angeles County Bar Association, Black Women Lawyers Association of Los Angeles Foundation and the Consumer Attorneys of Los Angeles.

In 2004, Chief Justice Ronald George appointed Justice Cooper to serve on the Judicial Council where she oversaw a study of judicial retirement and compensation issues, and efforts to eliminate bias in the administration of justice. Citing her work on the council, Chief Justice George said he had been very pleased when she accepted his appointment.

One of her colleagues, Justice Laurence Rubin said that Justice Cooper would be missed not only as a colleague, but also as a mentor and a close personal friend.  He praised her for setting a tone of “incredible collegiality,” and credited her for the smooth function of Division Eight since its creation remarking, “She basically started the division from scratch.”

Former Justice Vaino Spencer who has retired from the Second Appellate District and had testified in support of Justice Cooper at the 2001 hearing, said that she had “validated all the confidence everyone had in her and there is no way anyone who is intelligent and honest could say anything negative” about her.

Presiding Justice Joan Dempsey Klein also of the Second Appellate District’s Division Three said that Justice Cooper, as a “first-class” judge and an African-American woman, had served as an important role model, and lamented losing her from such a high profile position.

And Rachelle James, one of Justice Cooper’s longtime friends said, “She has been a friend of nearly 50 years, she has maintained the highest level of integrity, compassion and truly a great sense of justice and fair play in her legal and judicial career from her initial appointment to the municipal bench to her recent retirement from the appellate bench.  Of all her glowing attributes, she has most steadfastly remained true to herself as a mother and an active member of her community.”

Though Justice Cooper has retired from the bench, she has continued to use her legal and judicial expertise; she has joined the Los Angeles Resolution Center where she will serve as a mediator and arbitrator focusing on appellate, family law and a host of resolution issues akin to those she presided over while she wore judicial robes.

Categories: Legends

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