A bold, young pick for state’s high court

Leondra Kruger, 38, is Gov. Jerry Brown’s new California Supreme Court nominee.
Leondra Kruger, 38, is Gov. Jerry Brown’s new California Supreme Court nominee. Office of the Governor

With his nomination of rising legal star Leondra R. Kruger to the California Supreme Court on Monday, Gov. Jerry Brown has made his boldest move yet to infuse the court with new blood and high-powered diversity.

Kruger, 38, is not just an African American woman, but will be one of the youngest high court appointees in modern state history if her confirmation goes as expected. Her tender age already has raised a few eyebrows. A “mind-blower,” Santa Clara University law professor Gerald Uelmen termed the governor’s choice.

Brown is right in his effort to invigorate the Supreme Court with a new generation of jurisprudence. The seven-member bench has long been older and more conservative-leaning than the state as a whole.

The court had one Latino and three Asian justices and a 50-50 mix of men and women before Kruger was tapped to fill the seat of retired Associate Justice Joyce Kennard. But before Brown began reshaping it with the appointment of 44-year-old Justice Goodwin Liu in 2011, the average age on the bench was a venerable 69.

With Kruger and Justice Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar, 42, Brown’s other new and distinguished appointment, the high court will have an average age of 56 and a trio of Gen-Xers. That’s not a bad kind of diversity to have in a state this demographically young.

Kruger, like Liu and Cuéllar, also brings intellectual rigor. Former acting U.S. Solicitor General Neal Katyal calls her “perhaps the most outstanding lawyer in America right now under the age of 40.” Her fans say she has been a comer since her days as a National Merit Scholarship winner at Pasadena’s private Polytechnic School.

The daughter of two pediatricians and an alumna of Harvard University and Yale Law School, Kruger has a resume that lawyers twice her age would envy: a dozen oral arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court during a stint in the Solicitor General’s Office, former law clerk to Justice John Paul Stevens.

Last year, she was named deputy assistant attorney general at the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel. For several years, she has been a regular on Washington, D.C., attorneys-to-watch lists, and her name has come up in discussions of potential nominees to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Of course, federal nominees of any kind haven’t had much luck in the Obama administration, and their prospects haven’t brightened with the new Republican Senate. So, as with Liu’s 2011 arrival on the state high court after his stalled federal nomination, perhaps California can thank Capitol Hill gridlock for the gift of another top-notch state nominee.

But we can also thank Brown for bestowing three wise new progressive minds on the state bench, and possibly even a fourth should one of the more veteran justices retire during the remainder of the governor’s tenure.

Just one request: After three, count ’em, alumni of the governor’s alma mater, Yale Law School, could the next one, maybe, have a California law degree?