[LAYFAYETTE SQUARE] Magnificent Magistrate

Justice Vaino Spencer with Emma Collins, the columnist’s daughter, in 1997.

One of the many highlights of living in Lafayette Square was our very good fortune to have Justice Vaino Spencer, who passed away on October 25, 2016, as our next-door neighbor.

The first time I met her, she was inspecting the gorgeous flowers she had her gardener plant in her yard. She was tall, very beautiful, and spoke in a measured, but friendly tone. I remember telling my husband Craig that I had just met the most elegant woman I’d ever seen.

Justice Vaino Hassan Spencer was born in Los Angeles in 1920. She attended Los Angeles Polytechnic High School, Los Angeles City College, and Southwestern School of Law.

In 1961, Governor Pat Brown appointed her to a judgeship making her the first African-American female judge in the state of California, and the third in the nation.

Justice Spencer served in the Municipal Court, the Superior Court and for the last 20 years of her legal career, as the Presiding Judge of the First Division of the Appeals Court.

Her passion for gender and racial equality led her to found the Black Women Lawyers Association and co-found the National Association of Women Judges.

A few weeks after our encounter, Craig and I were invited to a dinner party at her home. When Justice Spencer opened her front door, she was wearing a stunning floor-length cape dress with feather trim and was holding a glass of champagne.

The dinner was perfect, the tables and flowers were gorgeous, but the piece de resistance was the conversation and the company we were sharing. Many of Justice Spencer’s guests were people on the frontlines of the civil rights movement in the 50s and 60s.

In her study, a large photograph hung of civil rights lawyer Leo Branton (Justice Spencer’s neighbor to the south), Dorothy Dandridge, Nat King Cole, Martin Luther King, and the glamorous Justice herself.

Over the years, we as neighbors experienced events that brought us closer—the riots, the Northridge earthquake, parties and best of all, the birth of my children.

When we brought our son home from the hospital, with no name because we couldn’t agree on one, I opened my front door and there was a gorgeous 4-foot high flower arrangement and a Tiffany picture frame.

When we opened the card from Justice Spencer, my husband and I looked at each other, and said, “Spencer.”

I hope one day he can live up to the name of our very dear and wonderful friend, Justice Vaino Spencer.

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