California’s New Mandarins
Jerry Brown’s latest state Supreme Court nominee reinforces a bad trend.
As expected, Governor Jerry Brown used the latest vacancy on the California Supreme Court to nominate a left-wing Latino. Last week, Brown named Mariano-Florentino (“Tino”) Cuéllar to replace Marvin Baxter, a conservative stalwart appointed by Governor George Deukmejian in 1991. Brown had come in for criticism from some Democrats for naming an Asian—U.C. Berkeley law professor Goodwin Liu—to replace Justice Carlos Moreno, the only Latino on the high court when he retired in 2011. Liu is so left of center that when President Obama nominated him to the liberal Ninth U.S. Circuit of Appeals, Republicans in the U.S. Senate filibustered and refused to confirm him. Liu’s ideological bona fides earned Brown no credit with Hispanic groups, however. Ever mindful of his base, Brown gave the nod to Cuéllar, a Mexican-born, Ivy League-educated academic.
Cuéllar’s credentials are impressive. He holds degrees from Harvard, Yale, and Stanford, where he heads the international studies program. He also teaches administrative law and international law at Stanford Law School. Cuéllar worked for two Democratic presidents—Obama and Bill Clinton—focusing largely on immigration issues. Yet practically none of his professional experience is germane to matters of California law within the purview of the state Supreme Court. He’s written primarily about national security and immigration.
Perhaps more importantly, Cuéllar has little experience practicing law, and no experience as a judge. He has never prosecuted (or defended) a criminal, tried a case, argued in court, drafted a contract or lease for a client, handled a divorce, negotiated a settlement, or even presided over a trial or appeal as a lower-court judge. Even Sonia Sotomayor, the first Latino on the U.S. Supreme Court, nominated by President Obama in 2009, had prior experience as a prosecutor and more than a decade as a lower-court judge. Cuéllar has been nominated to California’s highest court solely on the strength of an Ivy League education and career. Yet veteran Sacramento Bee political columnist Dan Walters deemed Cuéllar’s qualifications “impeccable,” and the San Francisco Chronicle’s Bob Egelko called his credentials “stellar.” No doubt Cuéllar would make a strong appointment to a policy position in the federal government, but (like Liu) he is dubious as a state Supreme Court nominee.
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