Gov. Jerry Brown’s nomination Tuesday of Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar to serve on California’s Supreme Court speaks to this state’s diversity and to the governor’s desire to leave a lasting mark on this state’s highest court.
For the second time in this term, Brown turned to academia rather than the bench for a justice, drawing Cuéllar from Stanford University, where he teaches law and where he got his doctorate in political science.
Brown’s first appointment of his third term, Goodwin Liu, came from Boalt Hall, UC Berkeley’s law school. Liu, 43, and Cuéllar, 41, could serve for decades, as Brown knows well.
Three-member panels confirm California justices, and the process almost always goes smoothly, unlike the federal confirmation process. Cuéllar’s name would appear on the November ballot, and he would have a 12-year term if voters confirm him. He would replace Justice Marvin Baxter, who is retiring after serving on the high court since 1991.
Cuéllar is keenly interested in educational quality and equality, an issue playing out in the courts and in Democratic politics.
Last month, a Superior Court judge in the case Vergara v. State of California struck down portions of California law that provides tenure for California teachers, finding that last-hired, first-fired rules deprive poor students of educational opportunities.
The case, which challenges teachers unions, will end up before the state Supreme Court. It already is an issue in the race for superintendent of public instruction between incumbent Tom Torlakson, who is backed by the unions, and Marshall Tuck, who supports the Vergara decision.
President Barack Obama’s education secretary, Arne Duncan, who has clashed with teachers unions, appointed Cuéllar to the administration’s Equity and Excellence Commission in 2011. In an interview posted on Stanford Law School’s website, Cuéllar spoke about “an achievement gap that’s affecting a huge proportion of the population.”
“So if we think about the goal being our ability to train the next generation, and have a country that has the capacity to lead in the world, that achievement gap is really what’s getting in the way,” Cuéllar said.
Cuéllar is a director of the Constitution Project, a nonpartisan organization that seeks consensus on constitutional issues, some of which land before the state court.
It has opined on issues including lengthy sentences for low-level drug crimes and the efficacy of drug “cocktails” used to carry out the death penalty. The project also has called for the addition of an advocate on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court who would represent the public’s privacy interests.
Cuéllar did not arrive in California until he was 14. He started his schooling walking across the border from Matamoros, Mexico, to Brownsville, Texas, to attend a Catholic school. In a TED talk posted on YouTube, he said our nation “is special because it can transcend borders” – as his life proves.
After his family moved to the Imperial Valley, he graduated from Calexico High School, then Harvard, then Yale Law School before heading to Stanford.
In his first go-round as governor, Brown tried to shake up the judiciary by selecting Rose Bird as chief justice. Her anti-death penalty positions led to her defeat in 1986. This time, Brown seems to intent on getting it right. He might be succeeding.