There’s one thing that’s sure about the Honorable Donna Hitchens’ legacy: Through her commitment to justice, she has changed the lives of thousands of people, not only while serving on the San Francisco County Superior Court bench, but as the founder of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, where her vision of fighting for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender equality continues to change the nation’s legal landscape.
After 20 years, Judge Hitchens—who developed a reputation as one of the nation’s most well-respected judges—retired from the San Francisco Superior Court in November 2010, ending a legal career that spans more than three decades.
Her unfailing commitment to justice and equality began in the 1970s, when she saw the courtroom as a way to change the world, and entered law school. As a lesbian, she had experienced frustrations and fears&mdashboth personal and professional—and didn’t want others to suffer the same. And as a future parent, she knew she would face even more challenges ahead.
Fresh out of University of California, Berkeley’s Boalt Hall School of Law in 1977 and eager to make a difference, she started the Lesbian Rights Project, one of the first legal organizations in the country to focus primarily on issues encountered by lesbians, such as custody, adoption, access to public accommodations, and employment. The Project was sponsored by Equal Rights Advocates, a leading national advocacy organization for women. Over time, the Project also began to represent gay, bisexual, and transgender parents, and to expand its work into other areas such as immigration, youth, elder, employment, and constitutional law.
In 1988, the Project became independent and was renamed the National Center for Lesbian Rights. And today, Judge Hitchens’ pioneering spirit and unwavering commitment to advancing LGBT justice and equality continues, with NCLR staff helping more than 5,000 LGBT people and their families each year through litigation, public policy advocacy, and public education. Hitchens won election to the San Francisco Superior Court in 1990, soon helping unify the court so that all cases involving divorce, adoption, abused children, child support, domestic violence, and other matters of family law are in one division.
In a 2002 San Francisco Chronicle story about Judge Hitchens becoming the Presiding Judge of the San Francisco Superior Court, Chief Justice Ronald M. George of the state Supreme Court, presiding over California’s 1,600 judges, said Hitchens’ work stands out. “She’s quite exceptional,” George said in the news story. “She’s really inspired a lot of people to turn their lives around.” Judge Hitchens has worked to improve the accessibility of the legal system for low-income families and children by helping establish coordinated youth services as well as a mandatory training program and peer review procedures for juvenile court attorneys to ensure delivery of the best services.
She has devoted much of her efforts at improving the social welfare and justice system for families and youth, and worked with the Bar Association of San Francisco to establish the court’s Family Law Self-Help Center, as well as with court staff, the Bar Association of San Francisco, San Francisco agencies and various community organizations to improve services for the dependency court and foster children. She has also chaired the San Francisco Safe Start Initiative, aimed at improving services to young children exposed to violence in the home and in the community.
Over the years, her efforts have been recognized by numerous organizations that have honored her with awards, including the 2001 Benjamin Aranda Access to Justice Award for her efforts to improve access to the courts for low- and moderate-income people. She also is the recipient of the 2002 Judicial Officer of the Year Award from the Family Law Section of the State Bar of California.
Since being elected to the Superior Court, Judge Hitchens has served as Presiding Judge, a trial judge in the Civil and Criminal Divisions and as Supervising Judge of the Unified Family Court. She is a former member of the Judicial Council and the Advisory Committee on Access and Fairness in the Courts and recently chaired the Science & the Law Education Committee.
In addition to her Juris Doctorate, she earned a bachelor’s degree in community leadership and development from Springfield (Mass.) College, where she later earned a Master’s in counseling. Judge Hitchens—who will fill in a few days a month for absent San Francisco Superior Court judges—plans on spending her retirement with her wife, Nancy Davis, visiting their adult children, going fishing, tending to her garden, cooking, and taking some classes.