Gov. Jerry Brown on Monday nominated a deputy assistant attorney general in the Obama administration to the California Supreme Court, continuing to recast the high court with Democratic appointees from outside the judiciary.
Leondra Kruger, 38, will be the first African American justice on the court since Justice Janice Rogers Brown left in 2005.
Kruger, who will replace retired Justice Joyce Kennard, is Brown’s third selection to the court of his third term. His two previous selections, Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar and Goodwin Liu, were both law professors.
If confirmed, Kruger would join Cuéllar and Liu as the three Democrats on a court that still leans Republican – though increasingly less so under Brown.
The court is also becoming younger and more diverse: Kruger will be the youngest member of the court, while Cuéllar, who was born in Mexico, and Liu, the son of Taiwanese immigrants, are both in their 40s.
Kruger, Cuéllar and Liu all attended Yale Law School, as did Brown. With Kruger’s appointment, Brown will have named three of the court’s seven justices. He won re-election this month and is likely in his fourth term to gain at least one more appointment, constituting a majority of the court.
“Leondra Kruger is a distinguished lawyer and uncommon student of the law,” Brown said in a prepared statement. “She has won the respect of eminent jurists, scholars and practitioners alike.”
Since returning to the Governor’s Office in 2011, Brown has avoided controversies that plagued his Supreme Court selections when he was governor before, from 1975 to 1983. His appointment of Cuéllar relieved pressure to appoint a Latino justice, and his nomination of Kruger stood to address longstanding complaints about the court’s lack of an African American justice.
The state chapter of the NAACP had argued for an African American appointee since the most recent vacancies came open.
Kruger, of Washington, D.C., was previously an assistant to the solicitor general and acting principal deputy solicitor general in the U.S. Department of Justice. She argued cases for the federal government before the U.S. Supreme Court, including on matters of immigration, and church and state.
Kruger, who was born in the Los Angeles area, was a visiting assistant professor at the University of Chicago Law School in 2007 and clerked for Justice John Paul Stevens on the U.S. Supreme Court.
“I am deeply honored by Governor Brown’s nomination,” Kruger said in a prepared statement. “I look forward to returning home to California and, if confirmed, serving the people of California on our state’s highest court.”
Kruger was admitted to the State Bar of California in 2002, according to bar records, surpassing the 10 years of bar membership required by the state constitution for the appointment.
Santa Clara University law professor Gerald Uelmen said that with Kruger’s dearth of California experience, “she’s going to have a steep learning curve, but she’s certainly capable of it.”
Uelmen said Kruger is of “superstar caliber” and that her nomination, along with the appointments of Cuéllar and Liu, are “elevating the national stature of the California Supreme Court.”
“I wouldn’t be surprised a few years down the line to see any one of the three on the U.S. Supreme Court,” he said.
The appointment requires confirmation by the state’s three-member Commission on Judicial Appointments, which consists of Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, Attorney General Kamala Harris and Justice Joan Dempsey Klein, presiding justice of the state courts of appeal.
The Supreme Court position pays $225,342 a year.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said in a prepared statement that Kruger is “an extraordinarily talented attorney who has been a leader within the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel and Office of the Solicitor General.”
He praised her “remarkable judgment, tireless work ethic and dedication to the highest ideals of public service.”
Like Uelmen, Vik Amar, a law professor at UC Davis, called Kruger a “superstar.”
“She’s obviously relatively young, but she’s packed in quite a bit in that decade and a half, or decade and a quarter since law school,” he said.
Kruger did not immediately respond to a request for comment today.
As a high school student in Pasadena, the Los Angeles Times reported in 1993, she was involved in speech and debate and in the student Sierra Club. She was selected that year as a Presidential Scholar. The newspaper reported that when she heard about the award, she said she screamed with joy.
Kruger went on to graduate magna cum laude from Harvard University. At Yale, she was editor-in-chief of the Yale Law Journal, according to the Governor’s Office.
In a prepared statement, former acting U.S. Solicitor General Neal Katyal called Kruger “perhaps the most outstanding lawyer in America right now under the age of 40.”
He said she “will make a historic, fabulous justice on the California Supreme Court.”
Call David Siders, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 321-1215. Follow him on Twitter @davidsiders.
Leondra R. Kruger
Residence: Washington, D.C.
Education: Law degree, Yale Law School; bachelor’s degree, Harvard University.
Experience: Deputy assistant attorney general at the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Legal Counsel, 2013-present; assistant to the Solicitor General and acting principal deputy solicitor general, U.S. Department of Justice, Office of the Solicitor General, 2007 to 2013; visiting assistant professor, University of Chicago Law School, 2007; associate, Wilmer, Cutler, Pickering, Hale and Dorr LLP, 2004-2006; law clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, 2003-2004; law clerk to Judge David Tatel, U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, 2002-2003; associate, Jenner and Block LLP; 2001-2002.