SAN FRANCISCO -- Stanford law professor Mariano-Florentino Cuellar on Thursday breezed through to confirmation to the California Supreme Court, adding a Latino and another academic to a court undergoing a dramatic transformation.
In an hourlong hearing that never even nudged into controversial territory, the 42-year-old Cuellar was praised for his vast legal scholarship and experience before his unanimous endorsement by a three-member state commission.
Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, Attorney General Kamala Harris and Joan Dempsey Klein, the state's senior appeals court justice, backed Cuellar's nomination by Gov. Jerry Brown. After hearing Cuellar's credentials, Klein joked that her only question was "where have you been all these years Gov. Brown has been looking" for justices?
The governor in July nominated Cuellar to replace veteran conservative Justice Marvin Baxter, who is stepping down in January after two decades on the Supreme Court. The timing of the confirmation allows Cuellar to be on the November ballot for a vote that would give him a full 12-year term.
Cuellar declined to comment after the hearing, but he told the commission that he was "humbled" and "grateful" for its support for his nomination.
As witnesses vouched for Cuellar's credentials, he sat with his wife, U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh, and their two young children. When Harris noted that the only legal experience Cuellar lacks is in judging, he noted that he understands the role of trial courts as a result of his wife's job, joking, "Trial court deference is a way of life in my family."
Cuellar's appointment to the court promises to continue Brown's reshaping of California's highest court, replacing Baxter with a justice expected to bring more liberal views. Cuellar also joins Brown's other appointee to date, Justice Goodwin Liu, as a member of the court coming directly from law school academia.
The governor has another vacancy to fill on the seven-member court: He has yet to name a replacement for Justice Joyce Kennard, who retired earlier this year.
Cuellar's ascension completes a journey that began as a Mexican immigrant who grew up along the Rio Grande and later migrated to California with his family. Cuellar often has recounted the story of how he crossed the river every morning with his brother to attend a private school in Texas, then later moved to California and eventually secured his U.S. citizenship.
Cuellar, known as "Tino," has been a Stanford law professor since 2001, but he has held a number of influential positions in the Obama administration, working on policy issues ranging from the military's now-scrapped "don't ask, don't tell" policy to international refugee camps.
Jeff Bleich and Danielle Gray, lawyers who worked with Cuellar in the administration, testified on his behalf at Thursday's hearing. Larry Kramer, a former Stanford Law School dean, was his third witness.
Cuellar got his law degree from Yale, his undergraduate degree from Harvard and doctorate from Stanford. He once clerked for 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Mary Schroeder.
"Tino's experience is quite astonishingly broad," Kramer told the commission.
Howard Mintz covers legal affairs. Contact him at 408-286-0236. Follow him at Twitter.com/hmintz.