UC Davis Law School Dean Kevin Johnson said Cuellar is particularly interested in criminal justice, including search and seizure and sentencing, and understands the discriminatory effect of some criminal laws.
"I think he is going to bring a different approach and a different way of looking at those issues on the court," Johnson said.
The California Supreme Court has five Republican appointees and one Democrat, with one seat vacant. Four are former prosecutors. Cuellar, a Mexican immigrant, will be the second Democratic appointee, and Brown is expected soon to name a third justice to fill the remaining vacancy.
Stanford law professor Hank Greely said Brown's appointees were likely to shift the court significantly, producing more rulings that move the law in new directions and make a mark nationally. Brown appointed former UC Berkeley Law Professor Goodwin Liu to the court in 2011.
"With two justices like Goodwin and Tino, it is really going to be a smart and interesting court," Greely said.
Cuellar was described Tuesday as an exuberant and forceful intellectual. He worked two stints in Democratic administrations in Washington, and his interests range broadly from political refugees to food safety, his colleagues said.
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 when he was 14 to the Imperial Valley, where his father taught in public schools and colleges. 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.
Cuellar's nomination is expected to be confirmed by a three-member state commission, and his name will appear on the November ballot for a 12-year term. He will replace Justice Marvin R. Baxter, the court's most conservative member, who retires in January.
Cuellar declined to be interviewed Tuesday, but told a Stanford law school publication last year that he discovered the power of the law while living with his family on the 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 told Stanford Lawyer. "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."
Brown described Cuellar, known as Tino, as 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," Brown said.
In selecting Cuellar, Brown once against turned to a law professor without judicial experience.
"That we have had two appointments in a row that did not come off the bench is the most remarkable thing," said Santa Clara University law professor Gerald Uelmen. "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."
Cuellar said in a statement that he was "enormously honored" by the nomination and, "if confirmed, I look forward to serving the people of California on our state's highest court."
Stanford law professor Jenny Martinez described Cuellar as "a people person" beloved by colleagues and students.
"He is very outgoing," she said. "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 law than state law, Martinez said Cuellar has taught criminal law, mostly a state-law subject, and has "a very broad mind." She said she expected he would be a bridge-builder on the court.
"He is the kind of guy who is interested in a huge range of things and sees connections between them," she said.
While at Stanford, Cuellar has focused his teaching and research on administrative law, executive power and government regulation. He also has directed Stanford's Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, overseeing 11 research centers and programs and education initiatives on international affairs. His resume is eclectic, and he has moved quickly from job to job.
"He has boundless energy, and he has this incredibly broad intellect and deep understanding of law and policy," said Stanford law professor David Engstrom. "I think of him as an institutional linchpin and a connector of people."
On a personal level, Cuellar has a genuine, effusive warmth that some people mistake as insincere, Greely said. "But it is not phony," he said. "He is a very warm, likable person who happens to be brilliant."
Cuellar served on the Obama-Biden transition team on immigration policy. He later worked as a special assistant to Obama on justice and regulatory policy, commuting from Washington to California on weekends to be with his wife, U.S. District Judge Lucy H. Koh, and their two children.
After returning to Stanford, Obama appointed Cuellar to the Council of the Administrative Conference of the United States, a nonpartisan agency that recommends ways to make federal regulatory programs more efficient and fairer.
In the Clinton administration, Cuellar did a two-year stint as a special assistant to a
Brown had been under pressure to appoint a Latino and Southern Californian. Cuellar fills one of those slots. Though he grew up in Southern California, he lives in the Bay Area. The state high court has no justice from Southern California.
Leaders of the California Latino Legislative Caucus praised the nomination.
"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.
"Indeed, he will bring a critical perspective, reliable judgment and even temperament to one of the most vital and challenging positions of service," they said.
Brown still must fill another vacancy created when former Justice Joyce L. Kennard retired in April.