Kay Tsenin

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Kay Tsenin, Superior Court Judge, San Fancisco, California. Photo by Ron Schlittler.


Kay Tsenin

Born January 10, 1947

Superior Court Judge

San Fancisco, California

725,000 constituents

Career Overview

Elected November 1996 as Municipal Court Judge

Became Superior Court Judge in a court consolidation

Re-elected in 2002



Kay Tsenin was born in Shanghai, China to Russian parents. She later immigrated to the US. She is a popular judge known for insisting on civility and a positive spirit in her court room - and because she holds "Food Court" on Fridays, when she brings dim sum.


Interview with Kay Tsenin for Out and Elected in the USA

Q: What is a Superior Court Judge?

A: The Superior Court is basically the lowest Trial Court in California. We have the trial courts, the Appellate Division, and then we have the Supreme Court. We do a variety of functions. I am only doing criminal cases. There are some people that do juvenile, then there is civil.


Q: How did you come to run for office?

A: At that time we had many years of Republican Governors, so I use to say a liberal lesbian from Richmond, which is sort of a residential area of San Francisco, isn’t going to get appointed, so I decided to run.


The interesting part about it is that since we were all gay, after the initial novelty of it all, that wasn’t an issue because, you know, nobody could “out-gay” the other person. We had all been active in our communities too. It’s not like nobody knew we were gay – so it wasn’t an issue, which was nice. I had run six years earlier and that’s when everybody, whenever they mentioned your name, would say, “Kay Tsenin, lesbian candidate.” And this time after the first week or so, nobody ever even said anything about it.


Q: How did you decide to become a judge? When you were growing up, did you ever imagine being a judge?

A: (Chuckling) I started imagining being a judge, I think – well, the way I ended up going to law school was that on a school field trip they took us down to, actually, the same place where I’m working now, the Hall of Justice. I got fascinated with trials. I use to come down on school holidays. I had nothing else to do so I’d come down and watch trials. I think that is one of the reasons I ended up becoming an attorney. I realized that when I had become a judge, moving along here, that people had been giving me gavels from my first days in law school; a lot of people are given gavels when they go to law school. It had always sort of been on the back burner as something I had wanted to do.


Q: Any thoughts about it now that you are there?

A: Other than that it is wonderful? No (laughing). It’s everything I wanted it to be and more. It is a great position. I think it is especially fun in San Francisco. I don’t know if it is true in other places, but it is especially good here because we do have a lot of young lesbian and gay lawyers on both the criminal defense side and the criminal prosecution side. And it is kind of neat to be to a certain extent a mentor, and to a certain extent a role model. I remember finding out for the first time when I was in college that I had this professor that was gay and thinking that this was the most marvelous thing. I think it is good that we have a good representation of judicial officers – not all of them are judges, some of them are commissioners – who are gay or lesbian. At least it lets the young people sort of know that they, too, can be judges.


Q: Any funny surprises or interesting stories since becoming a judge?

A: Other than the fact that you all of a sudden lose a first name? Actually, the friends I have now that I had before, they don’t treat me much different. But I do remember visiting a friend in the hospital and she was introducing me to all her relatives as Judge Tsenin. My other friends that I had come with were saying, “What’s this, what’s the matter – no first name?”


I guess the oddest thing about it is that you realize sometimes people want to introduce you by your title, not so much out of respect – and that is certainly not something I would insist on – but because it gives them some credibility. It is kind of weird to stand back and say, “OK, I’m being introduced as a judge because this person wants the other person to know that he or she hangs out with judges.” You kind of go, “What is all this about?” My friends tend to keep my head pretty level. I don’t think a single one of them – other than the faux pas in the hospital – have treated me one little bit different. It’s great. I love it.


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For information on a touring exhibit version of Out and Elected in the USA: 1974-2004, contact Ron Schlittler at rlschlittler@verizon.net.


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