by Shaun Knittel -
SGN Associate Editor
The Honorable Donna Hitchens, founder of the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR), has retired from the San Francisco Superior Court after two decades on the bench, where she developed a reputation as a compassionate judge and an innovative leader.
'Donna's vision and tenacity have transformed the legal landscape for Lesbians and all LGBT people,' said NCLR Executive Director Kate Kendell. 'As the founder of NCLR, she saw an enormous need for legal advocacy directed squarely at the issues confronting Lesbians in this country. The lives of thousands have been improved because Donna's commitment was, and is, unparalleled. Her unfailing commitment to justice and equality continued in her role as one of the nation's most well-respected judges, whose innovative leadership has redefined how the family court system operates in San Francisco. Her legacy is expansive and extraordinary, and she's truly a living icon.'
'As a legal scholar, she saw the courtroom as a way to change the world. As a Lesbian, she had experienced frustrations and fears - both personal and professional - and didn't want others to suffer the same. As a future parent, she knew she would face even more challenges ahead,' said NCLR officials in a statement.
Fresh out of the 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. Equal Rights Advocates, a leading national advocacy organization for women, sponsored the Lesbian Rights Project. 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 care, employment, and constitutional law.
'We congratulate Judge Donna Hitchens on her retirement from the San Francisco Superior Court and thank her for her years of service to our community,' said Equal Rights Advocates Executive Director Arcelia Hurtado. 'She is a legendary figure in the civil rights community, having been involved in the founding of two of our country's most impactful civil rights organizations, ERA and NCLR. On a personal note, when my partner, Nicole Solis, and I had our two sons, Judge Hitchens presided over both of their second-parent adoption hearings. She showed us such compassion and honored our humanity as parents in a way that will live forever in my memory. On behalf of the board and staff of ERA, we wish her the best in her retirement.'
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 were in one division.
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.
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