Leondra R. Kruger, a "quiet toiler" who became a rising legal star and top Obama administration lawyer, was appointed Monday to the California Supreme Court.
In choosing Kruger, Gov. Jerry Brown once again picked an unconventional candidate without judicial experience. Kruger, 38, grew up in Los Angeles County but spent most of her adult life outside the state. She will be the one of the youngest justices in modern times to serve on the court, and some legal analysts say she may one day end up on the U.S. Supreme Court.
Santa Clara University law professor Gerald Uelmen, an expert on the state's highest court, called the appointment a "mind blower" — unusual because of Kruger's relative youth and lack of extensive experience practicing law in California. She has been a member of the California bar for 12 years.
"Maybe this is Jerry Brown's effort to give the California Supreme Court greater stature nationally," Uelmen said.
Those who know Kruger's work in Washington predicted she would add luster and bring greater renown to California's highest court.
"She is super-smart, crazy well-prepared and the type of person who only cared about getting it right and not about getting in good with the boss," said former acting Solicitor Gen. Neal Katyal, who promoted Kruger to the No. 2 spot in the solicitor general's office.
"She is quiet, she is unassuming, she is someone who is not self-promotional," Katyal said. "This is really a victory for those quiet toilers who aren't always trying to plan their next career move."
Kruger, who is African American, joined the Office of Solicitor General under President George W. Bush and argued 12 cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. She left the solicitor general's office last year and became deputy assistant attorney general at the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Legal Counsel.
"Watching her at the U.S. Supreme Court was like watching a master who had done it hundreds of times," said Katyal, a law professor at Georgetown University. "It was breathtaking."
Kruger was Brown's third appointment in recent years to the seven-member court. His other appointees are Goodwin Liu, a former UC Berkeley law professor, and Mariano-Florentino Cuellar, a Stanford law professor. She will be the court's third Democratic appointee.
"With Brown's last two appointments and now with Leondra coming on the court, the California Supreme Court is looking like perhaps the most high-powered state supreme court in the country," Katyal said.
Kruger is married to a lawyer, and they have a young son. She was born in Glendale to parents who were both pediatricians, grew up in South Pasadena and attended Polytechnic High School in Pasadena. Katyal said Kruger is close to her mother, who lives in Los Angeles County, and has long talked about wanting to return to California.
Kruger served as a law clerk to former U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens from 2003 to 2004 and to Judge David S. Tatel on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit from 2002 to 2003. She also taught at the University of Chicago for a year.
She received her undergraduate degree from Harvard and her law degree from Yale University, where she was editor in chief of the Yale Law Journal.
Walter E. Dellinger III, a Supreme Court advocate who served as acting solicitor general under President Clinton, said Kruger has "a warm personality and argued with great confidence."
"She will bring a broader intellectual outlook to what state supreme courts can do," Dellinger said. "She will have the big picture as well as the small picture."
UC Davis law professor Vikram Amar called her "impressive."
"She is obviously young, but she has compiled a broad and deep record of appellate expertise," he said. "She may be new to being a judge, but she is not new to what high courts do. She basically has been writing briefs for and studying and trying to understand what motivates the highest court — the U.S. Supreme Court.... That reasoning carries over to a great extent to a state supreme court."
Though Kruger has spent most of her legal career outside California, she did an internship at the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles in 1999 and worked as a summer associate at Munger, Tolles & Olson in 2000.
She will join the court after a review by the state bar and confirmation by a three-judge panel, succeeding Justice Joyce L. Kennard, who retired in April.
Kruger is the second African American woman to serve on the court. Former Justice Janice Rogers Brown, the first, joined the court in 1996 and now serves on a federal appeals court in Washington.
"Leondra Kruger is a distinguished lawyer and uncommon student of the law," said Gov. Brown. "She has won the respect of eminent jurists, scholars and practitioners alike."
Kruger said she was "deeply honored by Gov. Brown's nomination."
"I look forward to returning home to California and, if confirmed, serving the people of California on our state's highest court," she said.
U.S. Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. called Kruger an " extraordinarily talented attorney."
"Her remarkable judgment, tireless work ethic, and dedication to the highest ideals of public service have marked her as one of the foremost leaders of her profession," he said. "I am certain that she will be an excellent and thoughtful Supreme Court justice who will serve the people of California with distinction for many years."
Former U.S. Solicitor Gen. Paul Clement, who served under President George W. Bush, called Kruger an "outstanding lawyer" and "even better colleague."
"She combines an understated and easygoing manner with a keen legal mind and unquestioned integrity," Clement said.