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State high court nominee learned power of law as a child in Mexico

Mariano-Florentino Cuellar, a Mexican immigrant and Stanford professor, is nominated to the state high court

Mariano-Florentino Cuellar — a Mexican immigrant and Stanford administrative law professor nominated Tuesday to the California Supreme Court — says he  discovered the power of the law while living with his family on the U.S. border.

“The government had the power to establish legal rules about matters such as immigration and public safety, but the border was porous, making it difficult to reconcile theory and practice,” he once told Stanford Lawyer, an in-house publication of Stanford Law School. “I learned  the world is complicated and messy, and people’s lives are affected not only by how law is written but how it’s enforced.”

Cuellar, 41, was born in Matamoros, Mexico, and for years crossed the border by foot to attend school in Texas. He moved with his family to the Imperial Valley when he was 14 and obtained his bachelor's degree from Harvard College, his law degree from Yale Law School and a doctorate in political science from Stanford.

In selecting Cuellar, Gov. Jerry Brown said: “Tino Cuellar is a renowned scholar who has … made significant contributions to both political science and the law. His vast knowledge and even temperament will — without question — add further luster to our highest court.”

Cuellar is Brown’s second nominee to the high court this term. In both instances Brown picked law professors without judicial experience.

“That we have had two appointments in a row that did not come off the bench is the most remarkable thing,” Santa Clara University law professor Gerald Uelmen said Tuesday.

“Judges who come off the courts of appeal are into a kind of culture of affirmance. They may regard issues as well settled even though we should be taking another look. That is where academics shine — in identifying areas that are ripe for change.”

Goodwin Liu, the UC Berkeley law professor nominated by Brown to fill a vacancy created by Justice Carlos R. Moreno’s retirement, joined the court in 2011.

On Tuesday, Cuellar said: “I am enormously honored by Gov. Brown's nomination and, if confirmed, I look forward to serving the people of California on our state's highest court.”

Cuellar, who would fill a vacancy that will be created when Justice Marvin R. Baxter retires on Jan. 4, 2015, declined to comment further on his nomination.

Stanford law professor Jenny Martinez described Cuellar as “a people person” beloved by colleagues and students. “Tino is is very exuberant,” she said. “He is very outgoing. He loves to talk about the law and ideas. He is just a very sort of gregarious, nice person.”

Although Cuellar’s resume seems more suited to federal than state law, Martinez said, he has taught criminal law (mostly a state-law subject) and has “a very broad mind.” She said she expected he would be a consensus builder on the court.

“He is interested in everything from the treatment of refugees to food safety in the U.S. to criminal law,” she said. “He is the kind of guy who is interested in a huge range of things and sees connections between them.”

While at Stanford, Cuellar has focused his teaching and research on administrative law, executive power and government regulation.

He served on the Obama-Biden transition team on immigration policy, and from 2011 to 2013 co-chaired the National Equity and Excellence Commission, created by Congress to help develop ways to close the achievement gap in public schools.

Cuellar also serves as a presidential appointee to the Council of the Administrative Conference of the United States, an agency charged with improving the fairness and efficiency of federal administrative programs. In addition, he is a member of the Board of Directors for the Constitution Project, a national bipartisan organization devoted to advancing support for the U.S. Constitution.

Leaders of the California Latino Legislative Caucus on Tuesday praised his nomination for reflecting the diversity of the state.

“Given his extraordinary legal resume and commitment to public service we are confident he will have a distinguished career on our state's highest court,”  Sen. Ricardo Lara (D-Huntington Park/Long Beach) and Assemblyman Luis Alejo (D-Salinas) said in a statement. “Indeed, he will bring a critical perspective, reliable judgment and even temperament to one of the most vital and challenging positions of service.”

Cuellar is married to U.S. District Judge Lucy H. Koh of the Northern District of California. They have two children.

After being reviewed by a state bar evaluation committee, Cuellar will go before a three-member judicial appointments commission for confirmation. His name would then appear before voters on the November ballot.

Brown also has another vacancy to fill on the state’s highest court. Former Justice Joyce L. Kennard retired in April. Her successor will give Brown three nominees on the seven-member court, which has been dominated by Republicans for decades.

Follow Maura Dolan on Twitter @mauradolan

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