In the third of a series, read about Santa Clara County’s newest LGBTQ member of the bench, Judge Jessica Delgado.
One of six LGBTQ+ judges in Santa Clara County, Jessica Delgado draws from her experience of being on her own at a young age and her intersectional identity as a queer Latina to handle cases with a nuanced and empathetic perspective.
Outed in high school in central Texas in the mid-eighties and rendered homeless, Delgado said she came into her queerness the only way that existed back then: through bars and soccer teams. In 1991, she and her girlfriend at the time decided they wanted to move to a place where they could be safe and out. They chose Santa Cruz.
With the encouragement of teacher and mentor Sam Marian, Delgado eventually went to Berkeley to study law after completing her bachelor’s degree through Cabrillo College and UC Santa Cruz.
Although Delgado swore she would never be in criminal defense, she became a public defender in Monterey County. In 2001, she joined Santa Clara County, where she worked as a deputy public defender for twenty years.
Former Santa Clara County Public Defender and now State Appellate Court Justice Mary Greenwood had told her that it is always important to re-examine your career, so in 2019 she thought it was time to think about a new thing. “I was deeply invested in public service, so being a judge seemed like another way in which I could continue to serve the community,” Delgado said.
As fate would have it, it was Governor Gavin Newsom who appointed her a judge in April 2021. Though they have never met, Delgado and Newsom have a connection that made his appointment of her that much more meaningful. When Newsom was mayor of San Francisco, he defiantly allowed gay marriages on February 12, 2004. It happened to be a court holiday, so she and her partner, along with other lesbian couples, rushed around and drove up to San Francisco to get married.
“Newsom’s action had a tremendous impact on us personally,” she said, “because we felt a sense of hope that our family finally might be recognized.”
Delgado’s marriage, along with all the others, was ruled invalid by the California Supreme Court, but Newsom’s bold move had given her hope. She and Diana, a public defender, have remained domestic partners and have a 16-year-old son.
Delgado felt it was very rewarding to have Newsom evaluate her as a judicial candidate. “To be fully out from the very beginning of the application process all the way through the interview—I felt like a whole person in the process,” she said. “I felt like all of the parts of me and all of the work that I had done over the years was all valued in a way I don’t think any official process had ever felt before. It was special for me to have someone appoint me who had given my family dignity.”
In her work as an out Latina judge, Delgado witnesses the impact of representation on a daily basis. “Just my being up there and who I am means something to the people who are in front of me. I see it all of the time. I see it in the Latinx community when I pronounce someone’s name correctly.”
Despite the neutrality required of judges, joining the bench has been an extremely personal process for Delgado.
“It’s a sacred relationship you have with the public. You should really be asked challenging questions about who you are and who you will be in that position. It’s like an autopsy of the soul, while you’re still awake and alive.”
The experiences of her youth-built resilience and a strong work ethic, and at the same time, gave her high expectations for herself and everyone around her. Delgado has had to learn to manage those expectations when sentencing young people in her courtroom.
“I remember what it was like to be that age and be completely on your own, and there’s a way in which bringing that perspective and that empathy is very powerful from now sitting in this position of deciding what is your sentence going to be, what discretion might I exercise? How can I include this context?”
Delgado brings that same understanding when it comes to racial equity and LGBTQ issues in the system, but she wasn’t always out at work. During her first ten years as a public defender, she worried her identity might harm a client’s case.
Although it has been over a decade since then, the landscape is still far from ideal. “It’s still a very heteronormative criminal justice system and justice system at large.”
Delgado also said she sees students of color struggle with the same challenges she faced as a law student almost thirty years ago.
Delgado works to foster inclusivity by using her intersectional identity to bridge worlds. “I like to bring a little queerness to the table when I’m in the Latinx world. And I like to bring a little bit of a discussion of race and equity when I’m in the LGBTQ world. I try to remind both of those groups that trans women of color should be our priority. They are the most vulnerable in our community and I believe that to be true in Santa Clara County as well.”
In the courtroom, Delgado announces her pronouns and uses gender-neutral phrasing in standard scripts. Outside of court, she has a special focus on mentoring transgender applicants. Currently, there is only one trans judge on the bench in California, and Delgado wants that to change.
“I have my own work to do around being affirming to my trans brothers and sisters. We have to have the capacity to have empathy and compassion for people who are different to be a good ally.”