A Supreme Success
California Supreme Court Associate Justice Kelli Evans, J.D. ’94, sits inside her chambers in San Francisco with a sweeping view of Civic Center Plaza and City Hall. We joke that the gold-toned furniture and her blue ensemble make a perfect UC Davis color combo.
The chairs belonged to the office’s previous occupant and will soon be exchanged for something of her choosing, as Evans is the newest member of the court, having been sworn in on Jan. 3.
Her diversity of experience and success in the legal field has led to this point. She previously worked in nonprofit, private and public sectors and served as Gov. Gavin Newsom’s lead attorney on a wide range of issues. She is also the first open lesbian to serve on the court.
“One of the things I love about being here — in many ways, similar to what I’ve loved about my career in the law — is there’s so much diversity,” Evans said in an interview with UC Davis Magazine in July. “There are so many opportunities for learning about new issues and new areas of the law.”
During the summer, the seven justices meet on Wednesdays to evaluate cases, deciding which to grant review and which to deny. Since Evans joined the court, it has decided a variety of cases, many in complete concurrence. Overall, Evans described the court as collegial.
“Our court is a very collaborative court. We have robust disagreements, discussions and debates, but it’s never personalized; it’s always professional,” she said. “And there’s no ego involved. I think all seven of us are doing our best to get to the best decision and outcome.”
Evans and her younger sister were raised by their grandmother in a Denver public housing development. And, Evans said, her grandmother stressed the importance of education, informed by her own experience in rural Florida during Jim Crow. Her grandmother stopped attending school in eighth grade to help care for her 10 siblings.
“Because of that, she was relegated to a life of low-paying manual labor work,” Evans said. “She told us to get our education so we didn’t have to kill ourselves working the way she did. She had an incredible work ethic and knew that education could open doors.”
As a child, Evans participated in competitive spelling bees and thought about a career in law. Though the family didn’t have many financial resources and didn’t know any attorneys, she said they did watch legal shows like Perry Mason on TV.
“I had it in my head that the law had something to do with fairness and working to make things more fair,” she said. She moved to California for college, attending Stanford University and majoring in public policy.
When she was ready to pick a law school, she said UC Davis was a “no-brainer,” for its strong public service focus and a generous financial aid package. There, she took part in the immigration and prison law clinics, further bolstering her interest in social justice issues.
“A lot of people dislike law school, but I loved it,” Evans said. “I was always a hand-raiser and a voracious reader, so doing the reading for classes and engaging in debates with my classmates, it was fun for me — and energizing.”
Her classmates nominated her to speak at commencement, where she received the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Service Award.
“Justice Evans was a student activist in the best of ways as a leader in the Black Law Students Association and the King Hall Legal Foundation, which raises funds to support students working for public interest organizations,” said Kevin Johnson, dean of the UC Davis School of Law. “Her commitment to civil rights and social justice at King Hall made her stand out among a student body devoted to civil rights and social change. And, she has devoted her entire career to working to make the world a better place. UC Davis School of Law could not be prouder of Justice Evans.”
Evans’ grandmother was able to attend her UC Davis graduation but has since died. As a tribute, Evans placed her law degree in the casket. She said she knew she was proud of her.
“I think she saw that there were no limits to what I could do if I set my mind to it,” she said.
A Career of Triumphs
After law school, Evans worked in the Sacramento County Office of the Public Defender and as an attorney at the ACLU of Northern California. From there she became a senior trial attorney at the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division.
While there, Evans worked on police accountability cases, including the department’s first racial profiling and excessive force cases. Her team evaluated and identified a range of areas in the Washington Metropolitan Police Department where training, policies and practices could be improved. The department had fewer officer-involved shootings after implementing the recommendations, Evans said.
“They actually awarded me a medal of honor, which they award to people who make a significant positive impact on the department,” she noted.
“I was very proud to work on those early police accountability, police reform cases for the U.S. Department of Justice and in many ways they set standards and approaches that are still used today. I’m obviously disappointed there’s still a need for the work this many years later.”
She worked in the private sector from 2001 to 2010, then was associate director of the ACLU of Northern California from 2010 to 2013, and senior director for the Administration of Justice at the California State Bar from 2014 to 2017. She served as special assistant to the Attorney General at the California Department of Justice from 2017 to 2019.
As chief deputy legal affairs secretary in the Office of Gov. Gavin Newsom, she helped shape California’s moratorium on capital punishment and advised the governor and executive agencies.
Most recently, she served as a judge in Alameda County Superior Court.
In his nomination of Evans to the California Supreme Court, Newsom said: “I have seen firsthand her commitment to the highest ideals of public service, and her passion to protect and advance civil rights and liberties for all Californians. I have no doubt that her exemplary talent, wide-ranging knowledge and experience, strong moral compass, and work ethic will make her an outstanding Supreme Court Justice.”
At her confirmation hearing, she said, outgoing Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye — also a UC Davis alum — asked her about her crowning achievement.
“I said it was very difficult, and maybe impossible to pick just one,” Evans said. “I’ve had such a rewarding career. I can’t pick just one.”
A Historic Nomination
Newsom nominated Evans to the Supreme Court in August 2022. With Evans on the court, Black justices now make up half of the associate justices, with the chief justice as the seventh member.
Evans said she’s happy to be a role model to young children.
“All the attorneys that I saw [as a child] looked nothing like me; they were all white men,” she added. “That is not what California looks like. Now, children have a glimpse, maybe, of what a lawyer can be, someone who looks a lot like them.”
With her nomination to the state’s highest court, the Los Angeles Times called her an LGBT history maker. For her part, Evans said she’s pleased to be a role model, adding that diversity of the court helps foster good decision-making, ensuring multiple perspectives are considered.
“Particularly now, when there are these culture wars, ‘othering’ people and in some instances putting people in physical peril, I think it’s particularly important for those of us who can be open and authentic that we do so,” she said. “Hopefully that provides hope to others, particularly young people.”
Evans met her partner, Terri Shaw, at Stanford, and they have been together for more than 30 years. They have a daughter, Kaden Evans-Shaw, who is in college. Together, they like to travel, cook and care for their dogs.
They plan to visit their daughter, while she’s studying in Spain next year, and seeing the aurora borealis is still on the bucket list.
And professionally, she said she is still surprised and challenged by her work.
“I’m looking forward to more opportunities to write my own decisions. Stay tuned for those,” she said. “I’m very privileged to be just one of seven people in the state that gets to interpret these significant questions of law and help develop the direction of law in California. So I’m looking forward to doing my best to do that in a way that is fair and continues to expand opportunity.”