Gov. Jerry Brown on Tuesday nominated Stanford University law professor Mariano-Florentino Cuellar to a vacancy on the California Supreme Court, adding a Latino to the state's high court and again choosing a prominent legal scholar without judicial experience to shape the court's future.
The 41-year-old Cuellar, known as "Tino," would replace Justice Marvin Baxter, who recently announced that he would retire at the end of the year. By naming Cuellar now, the governor assures that he would be on the November ballot, enabling the new justice to be approved by the voters for a full 12-year term.
A three-member commission that includes Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye and Attorney General Kamala Harris must confirm Cueller, but that is ordinarily a formality.
"Tino Cuellar is a renowned scholar," the governor said in a statement. "His vast knowledge and even temperament will, without question, add further luster to our highest court."
Brown has been under pressure to name a Latino to the court since Justice Carlos Moreno stepped down two years ago. Cuellar is likely to shift the court's conservative majority, given that Baxter has been one of the Supreme Court's most conservative justices for many years. Brown also must still name a replacement for Justice Joyce Kennard, who retired earlier this year.
By choosing Cuellar, Brown, known for preferring intellectual leaders for the state Supreme Court, has reached into the law school ranks for a second time. His other Supreme Court pick in his latest go-round as governor was Goodwin Liu, a UC-Berkeley law scholar who has received high marks since joining the court.
Cuellar has been at Stanford since 2001, specializing in immigration law and serving in key roles in the Obama administration at various times. He was a special assistant on justice and regulatory policy for the White House in 2009 and 2010 and also served on the president's transition team in 2008.
Among other roles at Stanford, Cuellar has been director of the school's international studies program for the past year.
Cuellar's upbringing is the classic immigrant's tale. A native of Mexico who walked across the border each day for years to attend school in Brownsville, Texas, Cuellar moved with his family to Southern California when he was 14. He got his undergraduate degree from Harvard and his law degree from Yale, as well as a philosophy degree from Stanford.
Cuellar could immediately be reached for comment. In a statement, he said he was "enormously honored" by the nomination.
In an interview with a student newspaper last year, Cuellar recounted how his immigrant upbringing influenced his view of politics and government.
"When you grow up on the border, you realize that a legal demarcation has such a huge effect in distinguishing one country from another, for example, and the whole structure of law shapes who's a citizen and therefore who counts in one society or another," he said.
Cuellar's background also includes a stint as a law clerk for 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Mary Schroeder.
Cuellar has been on a short list of potential candidates for Baxter's seat since last month. Now, Brown is expected to focus his attention on Kennard's seat, which has been vacant longer.
There is no indication when the governor might act, but among the candidates floated have been UCLA law school dean Rachel Moran, San Francisco appeals court justice Martin Jenkins and James Humes, presiding justice of the appeals court in San Francisco and a former top Brown aide who would become the first openly gay justice if selected.
Howard Mintz covers legal affairs. Contact him at 408-286-0236 or follow him at Twitter.com/hmintz
Original headline: Stanford law school professor named to California Supreme Court
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