In allowing 1.5 million current and former female employees of Wal-Mart to file suit, US District Court Judge Martin Jenkins just did what he had always done; show he wasn’t afraid of another multi-billion dollar lawsuit.

In his 15 years on the bench, U.S. District Judge Martin J. Jenkins has presided over high-profile civil and criminal proceedings.

He took on another one last week, certifying a gender-discrimination lawsuit against Wal-Mart Stores Inc. as a class action that will, if it isn’t settled, be tried in his San Francisco courtroom.

By allowing the suit to apply to more than 1.5 million current and former female employees of the world’s largest retailer, Jenkins set the stage for the largest civil rights case against a private company in U.S. history. He was anything but shy about that in the ruling, noting that he was handing it down 50 years after the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Brown vs. Board of Education that desegregated the nation’s public schools.

“This anniversary serves as a reminder of the importance of the courts in addressing the denial of equal treatment under the law wherever and by whomever it occurs,” Jenkins wrote.

A San Francisco native appointed to the federal bench by President Clinton, the 50-year-old Jenkins, who was also a municipal and state superior court judge, is known among colleagues and lawyers as tough but fair, and patient.

Barry Portman, the chief federal public defender for the Northern District of California, recalled a case in which a defendant charged with growing marijuana served as his own attorney — often a difficult situation for a judge. Jenkins “showed such incredible patience during the trial,” Portman said. “He can get mad, but it blows over like a summer shower.”

Managing a case of the size and scope of the Wal-Mart class action could test any jurist’s fortitude. But Jenkins has had ample practice in the spotlight, both on the federal bench and before.

He is presiding over the $9 billion McKesson Corp. securities fraud case, in which executives are charged with altering the books, and he accepted the guilty pleas of two top electricity traders of Enron Corp. who manipulated California’s power markets during the energy crisis.

Last month, he made headlines when he issued an order barring law-enforcement officials from prosecuting two women for using marijuana for medical purposes.

In that ruling, he wrote that “traditional medicine has utterly failed” the women.

Jenkins was an All-American football player for Santa Clara University and was briefly a defensive back for the Seattle Seahawks. He earned his law degree in 1980 from the University of San Francisco School of Law, working as an assistant football coach at his high school while taking classes.

He started out as a prosecutor in the Alameda County district attorney’s office and joined the U.S. Justice Department in 1983 as a trial lawyer in the civil rights division, traveling through the South to prosecute Ku Klux Klan members and take on other civil rights cases. In one, he prosecuted three men accused of burning a cross on the lawn of a racially mixed couple.

Jenkins later said in an interview with the Daily Journal, a legal publication, that it was his most fulfilling work, and the most difficult. He said he never forgot the racial epithets uttered by the defendants.

“It was the most frustrating job, because the jurors many times had the same mind-set as the people I was prosecuting,” Jenkins, who is African-American, told the newspaper.

In 1985, after his mother fell ill, Jenkins left the Justice Department and moved back to San Francisco. There he joined regional telephone company Pacific Bell’s legal department as a civil litigator, the position he held when then-Gov. George Deukmejian appointed him to Municipal Court in 1989. Jenkins was one of the few Democrats the Republican put on the bench.

George Leal, a San Francisco civil lawyer and former law school classmate of Jenkins’, said the judge could not be defined as either liberal or conservative.

“He first and foremost respects the law,” Leal said, “and honestly is not there to carry out an agenda.

“I am absolutely confident that when he makes a decision like this,” Leal continued, referring to the Wal-Mart class-action ruling, “he has put as much or more time into it than any other federal judge I’ve ever known.”

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