Q&A: Justice Cuéllar describes rise to California Supreme Court

Mariano-Florentino Cuellar was appointed to the California Supreme Court last year by Gov. Jerry Brown.
Mariano-Florentino Cuellar was appointed to the California Supreme Court last year by Gov. Jerry Brown. The Associated Press

California’s newest Supreme Court justice, Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar, will visit Sacramento on Wednesday to participate in an evening forum with 250 prominent Latinos in the auditorium of the secretary of state’s building, 1500 11th St. The event is already full.

In an interview with The Sacramento Bee, Cuéllar discussed his journey from Matamoros, Mexico, to the White House and now California’s highest court.

As a boy, Cuéllar, 42, crossed the border to attend school in Brownsville, Texas. He graduated from Calexico High School in California’s Imperial Valley. He then graduated magna cum laude from Harvard, got his law degree from Yale Law School and his doctorate in political science from Stanford University. Though he has no previous judicial experience, he clerked for Chief Judge Mary M. Schroeder of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit. He has taught law at Stanford University since 2001.

A veteran of two presidential administrations, Cuéllar investigated financial crime and worked on border cooperation and anti-corruption measures for the U.S. Treasury Department under President Bill Clinton. In 2009-10, he served as a special assistant to President Barack Obama for justice and regulatory policy. Cuéllar also served on Obama’s transition team, specializing in immigration policy.

Sacramento attorney Luis A. Cespedes, one of the organizers of Wednesday night’s gathering, called Cuéllar’s life story “an inspiration for many young people, especially those whose parents immigrated to the U.S. to seek a better life for themselves and their families.”

Q: What do you plan to talk about at the forum?

A: My hope is to to connect with people and have a conversation about the judicial system. An understanding of how it works is very important, and we must ensure California’s 39.5 million people have access to the courts, whether they’re rich or poor or speak English well or not. The docket runs the gamut from civil issues, employment and property disputes, antitrust cases, violent crime, white-collar crime and conspiracy events. It’s important for the judiciary to play a role as an independent branch that holds both the other branches of government and itself accountable.

Q: You were born in Mexico – how did that shape you?

A: I was born in Matamoros, Tamaulipas, just across from Brownsville, Texas, to a family that had been in Northern Mexico for many generations. My dad was an educator who worked in public schools in Mexico and the U.S., teaching physical education, Spanish, and education. He and my mother always instilled in both my younger brother and me a passion for learning and service. I had a scholarship to attend a Catholic junior high school in Brownsville, and for part of that time I would walk from downtown Matamoros and then across the international bridge. It would take me about an hour or so. When I was a teenager, we immigrated to America and moved to Calexico, California, where my father found a job teaching at Calexico High School.

The experience of living on the border and then moving to California’s Imperial Valley when I was in high school gives one a sense of how life is different on each side of the border, how diverse the country is, and how we don’t control everything that happens to us. Here in California, we have to manage a huge state that has to work for everyone, whether they are in the Imperial Valley or Silicon Valley.

Q: Can you share the secret of your success?

A: Part of it is the good advice I get from my wife! (Cuéllar’s wife is U.S. District Court Judge Lucy H. Koh of the Northern District of California.)

I spent a good part of my early life in Mexico and have never forgotten how fortunate I am to be a U.S. citizen. I’ve been lucky enough to have some great mentors, including my parents and some great lawyers, including James Johnson, with whom I worked at the U.S. Treasury Department, and Judge Mary M. Schroeder on the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Q: What makes a good judge?

A: There are so many great judges in California and on this court, and joining them on the bench is humbling. A great judge has to have integrity, patience and energy, and to keep in mind that humility long after he or she joins the bench. It also important for the court to have some collective knowledge of different areas of law, a deep respect for other branches of government and the court’s special role in protecting the rights of all Californians.

Call The Bee’s Stephen Magagnini, (916) 321-1072.