Gov. Jerry Brown on Tuesday nominated a Mexico-born Stanford Law School professor to the California Supreme Court, moving to replace one of the high court’s most conservative members with a Democrat.
Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar, who would replace retiring Justice Marvin Baxter in January, is Brown’s second selection to the court of his third term, both coming from the halls of academia. Brown appointed Goodwin Liu, then a UC Berkeley law professor, in 2011.
Cuéllar, who previously advised President Barack Obama on immigration matters, would join Liu as the only Democrats on a court dominated by Republican appointees. Its composition is becoming increasingly liberal under Brown, however, and the Democratic governor has one more immediate vacancy to fill, to replace retired Justice Joyce Kennard.
Cuéllar served as a special assistant for justice and regulatory policy in the Obama White House in 2009 and 2010 and co-chaired the Obama transition team’s immigration policy working group in 2008 and 2009. He worked in the Clinton administration’s U.S. Treasury Department from 1997 to 1999.
“Tino Cuéllar is a renowned scholar who has served two presidents and made significant contributions to both political science and the law,” Brown said in a prepared statement. “His vast knowledge and even temperament will – without question – add further luster to our highest court.”
Cuéllar was born in Matamoros, Mexico, and as a young boy walked across the border legally each day to attend a Catholic school on scholarship in neighboring Brownsville, Texas, the Governor’s Office said. He moved with his family at age 14 to California’s Imperial Valley after his family was granted green cards, and graduated from Calexico High School. The Governor’s Office said he became a U.S. citizen as soon as he was eligible in 1994.
Cuéllar, who has taught at Stanford since 2001, told The Stanford Daily last year that “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.”
Cuéllar’s appointment stands to relieve pressure on Brown to appoint a Latino justice. Carlos Moreno, who was the court’s only Latino member, retired in 2011. The chairman and vice chairman of the California Latino Legislative Caucus, state Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, and Assemblyman Luis Alejo, D-Watsonville, respectively, issued a joint statement praising the decision.
“Indeed, he will bring a critical perspective, reliable judgment and even temperament to one of the most vital and challenging positions of service,” the lawmakers said. “Mr. Cuéllar’s nomination will also add to the diversity of the Supreme Court which should reflect the diversity of our state, including its vast Latino population.”
Cuéllar has engaged publicly on the national immigration debate in his role at Stanford. With public support growing for major immigration changes, he told the Bay Area News Group in January that “immigration reform is more likely now than it has been in decades.” According to the news group’s report, he said, “Many people on both sides will be primed to keep their eyes on the big picture.”
Cuéllar has also studied education funding and school standards, significant concerns of Brown’s. He co-chaired a panel created by Congress to advise the Department of Education on disparities in education, and in a forward to the panel’s report last year, he and co-chair Christopher Edley, former dean of UC Berkeley’s law school, lamented leaders they said “decry but tolerate disparities in student outcomes that are not only unfair, but socially and economically dangerous.”
“Our nation’s stated commitments to academic excellence are often eloquent but, without more, an insufficient response to challenges at home and globally,” Cuéllar and Edley wrote.
The commission recommended funding pre-kindergarten programs for all poor children within 10 years.
Edley said Tuesday that Cuéllar is “an absolutely first-rate mind with the personality to help build consensus and the horsepower to advance the governor’s goal of returning the court to the wide acclaim it once commanded as the most thoughtful high court in the country.”
Hank Greely, a law professor at Stanford, said Cuéllar’s expertise in administrative law has afforded him an understanding of how legal interpretations are “likely to change or not change the reality on the ground.” He said his colleague is “certainly to the left of the middle of the American political spectrum” but that he is “fundamentally a pragmatist.”
Cuéllar received a bachelor’s degree from Harvard College, a law degree from Yale Law School and a doctorate in political science from Stanford University, the Governor’s Office said.
Through a spokeswoman, Cuéllar declined to comment, referring inquiries to the governor’s prepared statement.
In that release, Cuéllar was quoted as saying, “I am enormously honored by Governor Brown’s nomination, and if confirmed, I look forward to serving the people of California on our state’s highest court.”
Brown is widely expected to win re-election this year and could have even greater impact on the court with an additional four years to nominate justices. He made controversial judicial appointments when he was first governor, from 1975 to 1983, but his appointment of Liu was praised by legal scholars, as was his nomination of Cuéllar.
“I believe he’s trying to reshape the court,” Edley said. “He wants his appointments to be transformational, and I think this is where … the governor’s personal qualities as a thinker, as an intellectual, are going to have especially high payoff for the state.”
Santa Clara University law professor Gerald Uelmen called Cuéllar a “brilliant scholar” and said having two academics on the court “could make a significant difference in terms of the court’s willingness to take a fresh look at a lot of issues that other judges might have considered well settled.”
Cuéllar’s 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.
If confirmed, Cuéllar will appear on the Nov. 4 ballot for voter approval. The retention election, for a 12-year term, would come before Cuéllar acts on any case.
“He’ll have a full 12-year ride,” Uelmen said. “When he does appear on the November ballot, the only issues are going to be his qualifications, which are stellar.”
Cuéllar is married to U.S. District Judge Lucy H. Koh of the Northern District of California. They have two children. The Supreme Court position pays $225,342 a year.
Editor’s note: This post was updated at 9:45 a.m. and at 12:20 p.m. to add context throughout.