California Supreme Court Justice Kennard talks adversity, gratitude

California Supreme Court Justice Joyce Kennard is the current longest serving justice in California. She plans to retire in April.
California Supreme Court Justice Joyce Kennard is the current longest serving justice in California. She plans to retire in April. Paul Sakuma/AP

Outgoing California Supreme Court Justice Joyce Kennard has a unique personal history.

She is a native of Indonesia, moved to the Netherlands as a teenager and lost part of her right leg to a tumor, forcing her to walk with a prosthetic the rest of her life.

Kennard moved to the United States in 1961, settling in Southern California.

She recently spoke with KPCC's Nick Roman-- and talked about how $5000 her mother left her after she died of cancer changed her life.

After 25 years on the bench, Kennard has said she's retiring from the Supreme Court of California.

As the longest-serving justice of the California high court, Kennard has presided over a number of important decisions form the death penalty to Prop 8.

As she begins her retirement, Kennard told us that all she feels is gratitude.

"It's a feeling of gratitude," Kennard said. "Whatever success I may have achieved I owe to America."

Stronger from adversity

Kennard had aspirations of furthering her education, but was faced with many setbacks.

While she was originally set to attend school in the Netherlands, she contracted a tumor on her right knee just before her 16th birthday. This issue derailed her hopes for further schooling.

"I just wanted to learn and hoped that one day it would be possible to go on to university," Kennard said.

A chance to achieve

In 1961, Kennard was finally able to immigrate to the United States where she took a job as a typist for Occidental Life Insurance.

When her mother passed away, she left Kennard with $5,000 that she had saved up during her time as waitress.

Kennard said, "She had scraped and scraped and scraped and when I heard about it, I told myself, 'It's now or never.'"

A meteoric start

After graduating magna cum laude from the University of Southern California and then as a Juris Doctor for the USC Gould School of Law, Kennard's career was set.

In 1989, just three years after starting out on Municipal Court, George Deukmejian elevated her to the California Supreme Court.

Since then she has authored a number of high-profile opinions and has become known for her aggressive questioning in oral argument.

"I think it's safe to describe myself as a hands-on judge," Kennard said. "I'm very in what goes into a case. I'm very involved in discussing cases. I'm very much involved also in the crafting an opinion."

Bringing her work home

"They stay with you," Kennard said regarding how her cases remain in her mind once she's gone home for the day. "Contrary to what people may think, there's a great deal of attention the court pays to these cases."

The one thing Kennard hopes to not abandon at the work place is her staff.

"I have a great staff. They are very good friends of mine and will always remain my friends for I hope the rest of my life."

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