In nominating law professor Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar to the California Supreme Court, Gov. Jerry Brown is continuing a pattern of picking solid, moderately liberal jurists with backgrounds that reflect the diversity of the state's population. Cuéllar, assuming his nomination is approved by a three-member commission, will be up for voter approval in the Nov. 4 election along with Brown's 2011 Supreme Court appointee, Goodwin Liu, another liberal academic. The governor has a third state high court vacancy to fill as well.
The appointments cannot help but evoke the memory of Brown's judicial selections a generation ago. The then-young governor shook up trial courts across the state by picking judges of ethnic and racial backgrounds sparsely represented on the bench and with careers in criminal defense and public interest law, not just in prosecution and corporate work. Many of his picks were controversial, in part because a bench and bar long dominated by white males were uncomfortable with change, and in part, frankly, because a few Brown appointees were not up to their tasks.
Brown's most controversial appointment by far was Chief Justice Rose Bird in 1977. Bird was the Supreme Court's first female justice, but was widely seen as unqualified — and as flouting the law in leading the court to overturn every death sentence that came before it. Voters ousted her in 1986 after a campaign based on the court's death penalty rulings but funded, in part, by business interests unhappy with many of its consumer-oriented rulings.
In his return engagement as governor, Brown has avoided such contentious appointments, and an argument can be made that it's because he is older, wiser and less bent on remaking the judiciary.
But Brown now has a wider pool of well-qualified applicants, more representative of California's population, from which to choose. Nearly 40 years after Bird's appointment, the state has more female, more African American, more Asian, Latino and Native American attorneys, law students and young people who consider a career on the bench well within reach. More defense lawyers, public interest attorneys and practitioners in unusual fields are appointed than previously.
That's, of course, a result of changing times. But times changed in part because of the trails blazed and the glass ceilings broken by judges a generation ago, most of them well qualified for the bench, appointed to the judiciary by upstart governor Jerry Brown.
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