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The State of the State’s Supreme Court

Posted in Change on the Horizon? on February 17, 2015


This year, two new justices joined the State’s Supreme Court.

After 25 years on the Court, Justice Joyce Kennard retired from the bench on April 5, 2014. Her spot remained vacant until last month when Governor Jerry Brown appointed Leondra Kruger, a nomination that was approved by a unanimous vote of the state’s Commission on Judicial Appointments.  Although the appointment received some criticism as Ms. Kruger has neither practiced law in California nor served as a judge[1], the nomination yielded approval from State Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, Attorney General Kamala Harris, senior appeals court Justice Joan Dempsey Klein and even Paul Clement, a Republican and the former Bush administration solicitor general.

Additionally, in January, Marvin Baxter, often referred to as the State’s most conservative judge, retired after twelve years on the bench. In response to the vacancy, Governor Brown nominated, and a unanimous Judicial Appointment Committee approved, Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar to the bench.[2] The committee gave him the same glowing praise they afforded Kruger, referring him as “exceptionally well-qualified.”  His nomination was approved by the voters in November.

Justice Kruger will be the state’s first African-American woman justice in nearly a decade, and at 38 she will also be one of the youngest justices to serve on the Court. Justice  Cuéllar “will be the court’s first Latino justice since 2011 and its first Latino immigrant.”[3] Both new justices received undergraduates degree from Harvard and law degrees from Yale. Before joining the Court, Justice Kruger worked as a deputy U.S. attorney general and had argued a dozen cases before the U.S. Supreme Court.  She credits her interest in public service to the examples set by her parents; her father is a first-generation American and her mother emigrated here from Jamaica to become a doctor. Justice Kruger “was raised with the belief that anything is possible if you set your mind to it, but that with great opportunities comes great responsibilities to contribute and to be of service to others.” [4]  Justice Cuéllar previously worked for the U.S. Department of the Treasury, and most recently, taught Criminal, Administrative and International Law at Stanford.

Legal commentators refer to Justice Kruger’s politics as being “a touch liberal, but nothing extreme,”[5] whereas Justice Cuéllar is decidedly liberal.[6]  They represent the second and third democratic-appointees to a seven-member bench that has held a Republican tilt since 1987.[7]  This political swing will likely have the most significant effect in the fields of criminal and immigration law.[8]

Both were sworn in on January 5, 2015.

[1] See Marshall Kilduff, Jerry Brown’s Judges, No Experience Necessary, SFGate (November 25, 2014).

[2] Bob Egelko, Panel OKs Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar for California Supreme Court, SFGate (August 25, 2014).

[3] Bob Egelko, California Supreme Court Nomination a ‘Statement’ to U.S., SFGate (July 22, 2014).

[4] Alexei Koseff, Leondra Kruger confirmed to California Supreme Court, Sacramento Bee December 22, 2014.

[5] Marshall Kilduff, Jerry Brown’s Judges, No Experience Necessary, SFGate November 25, 2014.

[6] Bob Egelko, Gov. Jerry Brown’s High Court Agenda, SFGate (August 28, 2014).

[7] Bob Egelko, Brown Nominee to State High Court is Fast-Rising Legal Star, SFGate (November 25, 2014).

[8] Bob Egelko, Gov. Jerry Brown’s High Court Agenda, SFGate (August 28, 2014).