Not much is known about the six LGBTQ+ judges that serve on the bench in Santa Clara County. In the first of a series, read about Charles Adams, an openly gay male judge who has served since 2018.
Judges often lead lives of privacy, as they strive to unbiasedly guide others through the legal system’s stresses and hardships.
For Judge Charles Adams, who serves in Santa Clara County’s family courts, being “out” as a gay man at work means frequently setting that element of his personal life aside.
The 43-year-old is by no means the first LGBTQ judge in California; Judge Stephen Lachs holds that title, appointed by Gov. Jerry Brown in 1979.
More than 40 years after that historic ‘first,” Charles proudly serves as one of 73 LGBTQ judges in California in 2021, after he was appointed in 2018—also by Gov. Brown, during his second term.
After growing up as the son of two teachers in Antioch, a relatively small town in the East Bay, Charles went to college at the University of California, Davis, followed by law school at Pepperdine down in Los Angeles, where he started working in civil litigation and family law.
Charles stumbled into a job as a research attorney for the Superior Court in Santa Clara County in 2006, combining his desire to focus on finding solutions with a homecoming back to the Bay Area.
One of Charles’ career highlights began in 2011, when he began working as a permanent staff member under Judge Edward Davila in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California, prior to his own 2018 judicial appointment.
Charles says he thrives serving on the bench, as his role in the justice system revolves around being careful, caring and wanting to do the right thing to help people.
After alternating between family and criminal court, Charles became a supervising judge for family court, overseeing cases involving issues like domestic violence, restraining orders, probate and guardianship.
Notably, Charles was not previously openly “out” at work before becoming a judge. That changed in a simple yet meaningful moment: deciding to check a box identifying him as a part of the LGBTQ community on the application to become a judge.
“It’s not a required question, but for me it was going to be sort of the first public acknowledgement of being gay or LGBTQ,” Charles says, adding that he only recently began feeling comfortable and safe bringing his partner of 12 years to work events. “From then, it never came up.”
That may be, in part, because there is often little crossover between the bench and LGBTQ politics, unlike many politicians and other public figures, who often share their personal lives to connect with other residents and build community.
Charles says that judges often live lives outside of the public eye in order to avoid any potential impacts to their perception of impartiality, especially within family courts. While anyone serving on the bench has their own attributes and feelings—consciously or unconsciously—he rejects any idea that personal characteristics should be reason for disqualification, regardless of whether judges are Latino, female or LGBTQ.
“When you’re sitting on the bench, who you are is important, but it’s not necessarily relevant,” Charles says. “Personally, I think it’s smart to not put too much out there so that people don’t have preconceived ideas of how you’re going to be, how you’re going to rule and what your perspective is going to be.”
Fortunately, he has yet to run into any problems.
“Going into every case, I only see what the issues are, what the law says, what the facts are as I find them and I make a decision based on that,” Charles continued, adding the he and his colleagues take the issue seriously. “I think just understanding how people, feelings, and families work translates beyond not being a parent, myself.”
Charles has years of practice, first seeking out privacy of his personal life beginning in law school—an often competitive environment where it’s natural to be careful about what others know and slowly learn who to trust.
“It’s not something I wanted people to really know about or have a reason to think differently of me, just because of that,” he explains. “It really wasn’t until I moved back to the Bay Area that I was a little more willing to have that part of my life shared.”
That’s one reason Charles hopes that the fact that he’s gay provides another example for future lawyers and aspiring judges to know it’s possible to be successful, despite any personal background that is different from the “norm.”
“I remember being a law student and there weren’t really any role models that I knew for what I wanted to be—to see that someone could be successful,” Charles says. “What I hope is that people in the same position I was in can see me doing the things I am, now saying they could do it, too.”