A state commission decided unanimously Thursday to confirm the appointment of Stanford law professor Mariano-Florentino Cuellar to the California Supreme Court, paving the way for Gov. Jerry Brown's second high-court nominee this term to take the bench in January.
Cuellar's name will appear on the November ballot for election to a 12-year term. If approved by voters, as expected, Cuellar will take the seat of Justice Marvin R. Baxter, a conservative Republican appointee from Fresno who plans to retire when his term ends in January.
The state Commission on Judicial Appointments, headed by Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, approved the nomination after an hour-long hearing. Three lawyers spoke in favor of Cuellar's appointment; there was no opposition.
A state bar evaluating commission gave Cuellar, an immigrant from Mexico, its highest rating: exceptionally well qualified.
"He is a brilliant scholar, an excellent writer and speaker, and enjoys a stellar reputation for his achievements in academia," Jason P. Lee, chair of the Commission on Judicial Nominees Evaluation, told the appointments panel.
The evaluators praised Cuellar for his "wide array of academic and governmental experience" and his "remarkable ability to build and maintain consensus even amongst those with disparate interests" and a dedication to public service, Lee said.
Atty. Gen. Kamala D. Harris, one of the three commissioners, noted that Cuellar has vast experience as a scholar and policy-maker but had never been a judge.
Cuellar quipped: "It helps that I am married to one." He said he was used to giving deference to a trial judge, his wife, U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh.
Born in Matamoros, Mexico, Cuellar, 41, crossed the border on foot as a child to attend a school in Texas. He moved with his family to Calexico in the Imperial Valley when he was 14 and graduated from Calexico High School.
Cuellar obtained a bachelor's degree from Harvard College, a law degree from Yale Law School and a doctorate in political science from Stanford. He became a U.S. citizen in 1994.
In addition to his academic work, Cuellar has served in two Democratic administrations. He worked on the Obama-Biden transition team on immigration policy and then spent a year as a special assistant to the president on justice and regulatory for the White House Domestic Policy Council.
While on the council, Cuellar managed the Obama administration's efforts to repeal the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy, worked on reducing sentencing disparities for crimes involving crack and cocaine, helped create a task force to end gender pay disparities and raised resources for civil rights enforcement.
Cuellar also did a two-year stint in the Clinton administration as a senior advisor to a Treasury Department undersecretary. His work included giving advice on federal government efforts to combat money laundering and the department's firearms policies.
Legal analysts say Cuellar's appointment could push the state's highest court in a more liberal direction. For years dominated by Republican appointees, the seven-member court is likely to soon have three Democratic justices. The Democrats could create a new majority with Justice Kathryn Mickle Werdegar, a Republican appointee with a moderate-to-liberal record.