Thomas A. Saenz, a nationally known Latino civil rights lawyer who led the fight against Proposition 187, the 1994 measure that would have barred illegal immigrants from public services, is among the top candidates Gov. Jerry Brown is considering for the California Supreme Court, according to judges and law professors who have been consulted about the selection.
Brown has yet to interview any of the candidates, and an appointment is not believed to be imminent. But sources familiar with the vetting process said the search has narrowed to several candidates, including Saenz, president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
Other Latinos under consideration include Southwestern Law School professor Christopher David Ruiz Cameron, who has labor backing; Stanford Law School professor Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar; and state Court of Appeal Justice Maria P. Rivera.
Non-Latino judges whose names have been mentioned during the vetting include Los Angeles district Court of Appeal Justice Dennis M. Perluss, a highly regarded appointee of former Gov. Gray Davis, and San Francisco district Court of Appeal Justice Martin J. Jenkins, a former prosecutor and African American who is well liked by members of the state high court.
The court has no African Americans, and Justice Carlos R. Moreno, who is leaving the court for the private sector Feb. 28, is its only Latino and Democrat. Moreno was the sole justice to vote to overturn Proposition 8, the ballot measure that reinstated a ban on same-sex marriage.
Brown's first pick for a Supreme Court justice since his election in November is not likely to significantly alter the ideological balance of the court.
The seven-member panel has three conservatives and three moderate-to-liberal justices, including Moreno. Retired Chief Justice Ronald M. George was often a swing vote; and his successor, Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, is considered a moderate.
Saenz, 44, who was one of L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's top advisors, is regarded as a brilliant legal thinker by critics and admirers alike. He is quiet, serious and self-effacing and is said to possess strong diplomatic and public speaking skills.
The Obama administration vetted Saenz to head the civil rights division of the Justice Department but decided not to appoint him to the post out of concern that his confirmation process could stir up a politically damaging debate about immigration. Saenz has called for a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants and strongly condemned Arizona's tough immigration law, which is now being challenged in the courts.
As a civil rights lawyer, Saenz has fought ordinances that restrict day laborers, advocated for affirmative action, challenged congressional redistricting, initiated a successful employment discrimination lawsuit against Abercrombie & Fitch and led an unsuccessful court challenge of Proposition 227, the 1998 English-only initiative. He also led Villaraigosa's unsuccessful effort to gain control over the Los Angeles school system.
Saenz would be a bold choice. Brown, criticized for decades for his 1977 appointment of the liberal Chief Justice Rose Bird, later ousted by voters, had been expected by some legal analysts to choose an experienced judge with moderate to liberal views. Instead, his search has included academia and public interest groups.
Brown has told others he wants Moreno's successor to be in the mold of such historic state high court justices as Roger J. Traynor and Mathew Tobriner, legally creative jurists who left strong marks on the law nationally.
Saenz grew up in Southern California, graduated summa cum laude from Yale University and received his law degree from Yale. He later clerked for U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Stephen Reinhardt. Saenz, who did not return a telephone call from The Times, also taught law for several years at USC.
Moreno, who was appointed to the California Supreme Court by then-Gov. Gray Davis in 2001, described Saenz as "brilliant."
"He can speak on complex constitutional issues knowledgably and without any notes," Moreno said. "He has a high level of name recognition among Latinos in Southern California and among the civil rights community generally."
Latino groups, law professors and lawyers who know Saenz said he has the intellectual qualities, legal experience and personal demeanor that would attract Brown. They say he would be easily confirmed and approved by voters.
But lawyers for conservative legal groups said they feared Saenz would be ideological. Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, a law-and-order group, said he was concerned that Brown was considering candidates from "left-wing activist organizations" and expected Brown to be "cautious."
"I don't think an activist judiciary is really high on his agenda," Scheidegger said.
Typically "governors don't want brilliance," said Jon Eisenberg, an appellate lawyer who appears before the state high court. "They want safety and predictability.... But if any governor would give us another Roger Traynor, it just might be Jerry Brown. He is capable of bold strokes."
Cameron, 52, the Southwestern University professor, graduated from UCLA and Harvard Law School and served as a law clerk to 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Harry Pregerson. Cameron represented labor organizations as a private attorney and specializes in employment law. He is a director of the Mexican American Bar Foundation.
Reached at his law school office, Cameron declined to comment.
UC Davis Law School Dean Kevin Johnson, who went to college with him, said Cameron grew up in Gardena and was the first in his family to go to college. "He is not a far-out leftie, he is not a conservative," Johnson said. "He is somewhere in the middle."
Jenkins, Rivera and Perluss are considered politically safe candidates whose appointments would make no waves. They are liked and admired by other judges on the bench and considered moderate to liberal.
Stanford's Cuéllar, who has served in both the Obama and Clinton administrations, is viewed as an expert in policy, including government regulation. He graduated from Calexico High School, obtained an undergraduate degree from Harvard, a law degree from Yale and a doctorate in political science from Stanford. He clerked for 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Mary M. Schroeder.