Media Contact: Diane Curtis                                        415-538-2028              

San Francisco, Sept. 13, 2011 — Presiding Justice Joan Dempsey Klein of the Second District Court of Appeal, Third Division, is the 2011 recipient of the Bernard E. Witkin Medal, given to someone “whose outstanding contributions and achievements have enriched the legal profession and exalted the science of jurisprudence.”

Both former State Bar President Holly Fujie and California Court of Appeal Justice Maria Rivera, who were on the panel that chose this year’s recipient, describe Klein as an “iconic” figure.

“She’s a legend in California jurisprudence,” Fujie said of the 87-year-old jurist, who began practicing in 1955 in the Attorney General’s Office. “Besides being a very wise and incredibly hardworking justice, she has been more involved in community activities, in bar activities, than any judge I know.”

“She’s such a great leader and such an inspiring role model and at the same time she is so modest and so ready to acknowledge everybody but herself. It’s a wonderful combination,” said Rivera.

The Witkin Medal, which will be presented to Klein at the State Bar’s Annual Meeting this week in Long Beach, was created in 1993 and named after its first recipient, the preeminent legal scholar and writer.

A graduate of UCLA law school, Klein was appointed to the municipal court by Gov. Pat Brown, elected to the superior court and then appointed presiding justice in the Los Angeles appellate court by Gov. Jerry Brown in 1978.

Rivera said she is awed by the number of Klein’s published opinions – 507. “It’s what I call a very hefty share of excellent legal scholarship that’s been added to our California appellate courts.”

The first graduate of UCLA law school to be appointed to the bench, Klein’s list  of honors and accomplishments is immense, but she may be best known for founding and leading professional organizations for women lawyers and judges. She was founding president of California Women Lawyers, which combats gender bias in the courts, supports legislation and court decisions for women’s and children’s rights and advocates for greater diversity in the profession, and co-founder and first president of the National Association for Women Judges, the leading voice for women jurists.

Rivera said the support for women on the bench, “especially in the early years when there were very few and you could feel like the Lone Ranger,” has been vital for many women, as has been the networking and being able to get together on a regional and national scale. But a number of important initiatives also come from the association, such as help for women prisoners, collaborative justice programs and promotion of women of color as lawyers and judges.

Klein testified before Congress on behalf of the nomination of Sandra Day O’Connor to the Supreme Court, served as U.S. representative at a conference on women sponsored by the Puerto Rican Bar Association and was chair of a California Highway Patrol committee on the employment of women as CHP officers.

She has had awards named in her honor and has herself received the Margaret Brent Women Lawyers of Achievement Award and been named Person of the Year by the Metropolitan News-Enterprise, Appellate Justice of the Year by the Los Angeles Trial Lawyers Association and Woman of the Year by the Los Angeles Times.

The resolution, signed by State Bar President William Hebert, that acknowledges the award, thanks Klein “for her extraordinary contributions to the legal profession, for her exemplary service to the community, for her courage in upholding the provisions of the United States Constitution, for her unwavering commitment to the concepts of equal access to justice and civil rights.”


The State Bar of California is an administrative arm of the California Supreme Court, serving the public and seeking to improve the justice system for more than 80 years. All lawyers practicing law in California must be members of the State Bar. By September 2011, membership reached 233,000.