In January 2019, Jonathan Karesh became the second LGBTQ judge ever elected to be the presiding judge of the San Mateo County Superior Court. At the time, he was the only out LGBTQ presiding judge of a county Superior Court in California.
He is one of three LGBTQ judges on the San Mateo County bench, having been appointed by Governor Gray Davis in 2001.
It would seem that Karesh’s career as a judge was decided long before he started law school at Berkeley. After all, his father Joseph Karesh was elected a San Francisco Superior Court judge the year he was born, and his earliest memories are of father-son bonding time spent going to watch his father’s trials. “We would also go to the courthouse on the weekends and then go to lunch after and just have a really nice time,” he recalled.
When Karesh was just 10 years old, he volunteered for his father’s friends’ campaigns for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. At that time, he thought he might want to be a congressman.
It was a mock trial he was a part of in an eighth-grade social studies class that steered him towards a law career. Karesh loved playing the role of an attorney. That same year, he placed second in a speech competition, which further cemented his confidence. “I was terrible at sports, but I could speak and speak persuasively.”
After law school, Karesh spent his twenties and thirties as a deputy district attorney. At the time, he was heavily involved in the Democratic Central Committee and Democratic candidate campaigns. Those connections served him well when he applied to be a judge at age 38 and was able to have prominent community leaders write letters of recommendation to Governor Davis.
Now that Karesh has served as a judge since 2001, he has no desire to run for office. “I love my job too much, and besides, politicians have to fundraise and campaign, which I don’t want to do.”
These days, Karesh presides over criminal trials. He tries serious felony cases, which include trials for attempted murder, kidnapping, and sexual assault.
For the last ten years, Karesh has also mentored LGBTQ law students through the Bay Area Lawyers for Individual Freedom (BALIF). His most recent mentee was a young man who recovered from substance abuse to go on to work with criminal defendants with similar histories. In 2018, he received BALIF’s Mentor of the Year award. That same year, the San Mateo
County Trial Lawyers Association presented him with their Judge of the Year award.
In 2011, Karesh filmed an It Gets Better video with the BALIF team. “It’s important for young people to know you can be in this profession and being gay is not a hindrance at all.”
Karesh came out at work in 2006 because he did not want to put up a wall between his personal and work life. He did so thanks to some advice from California’s first out lesbian judge, Rosemary Pfeiffer, who was outed by the press in the early 90s after attending a gay rights event.
“It was exhausting to maintain that wall, to keep things from my friends on the bench,” he explained. “I think it’s very important to be out at work.”
Karesh has never had an issue as a gay man at work. In fact, the day he came out by sending an email to a dozen people connected with court system, colleagues flooded his inbox with congratulatory emails.
Rich Gordon was serving on the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors at the time. The Board Chambers and the Court Rooms were in the same building, and Gordon remembers there was an immediate buzz in the hallways and the elevators when Karesh made his announcement. “The buzz was positive and supportive,” said Gordon. “I had known Jon prior to his appointment as a judge due to his political work in our county. His coming out filled me with pride.”
“Jon is an outstanding human being and an outstanding judge,” reflected Gordon. “His integrity, his dedication, and his commitment to the rule of law make him an outstanding role model for those LGBTQ attorneys who stand on his shoulders.”
Around five years ago Karesh had a full-circle moment of getting then giving advice when a young district attorney came to him with questions about coming out.
Karesh himself did not come out until later in life. With a lesbian older sister, who came out in 1977, he felt pressure to be straight. He spent years in denial, only starting to date men in his early thirties and coming out to himself fully in his late thirties. Karesh came out to his mother shortly thereafter, at age 41. He never got the chance to come out to his father Joseph, who passed in 1996.
In 2008, his personal and work lives collided when Karesh had the immense privilege of officiating his sister Barbara’s wedding. “It was the most moving experience of my life.”
Barbara’s real wedding took place many years before on a beach in Pacifica with a Unitarian minister when she and her partner first got together in 1979. It was the small 2008 ceremony that married the two in the eyes of the law.
As for his own love life, Karesh got engaged back in September while on a cruise to Canada. His partner Steven is retired from the semiconductor industry, and in two and a half years, Jon will be eligible to join him in retirement so that the two can spend the rest of their lives together.
Jon, Barbara, his sister-in-law, and his fiance are all very close friends
Karesh is “pretty sure” he will retire in 2025, but if he’s anything like his father, he’ll change his mind. Joseph Karesh worked until he was eighty-seven years old, becoming the oldest working judge in the state at the time.
Outside the courtroom, Karesh has two passions when it comes to musical groups. He loves folk music, particularly the Kingston Trio. For the past 16 summers, he has gone to Scottsdale, Arizona, to attend the Kingston Trio Fantasy Camp, where twice he won the Camper of the Year award. He plays music with his colleagues in a band called The Folking Judges.
His other favorite band is Phish, whom he has seen perform 57 times in nine different states. He flew to New York this past New Year to see them play at Madison Square Garden.
Karesh is also active in his Episcopal church, which has welcomed him and Steven with open arms.