Jerry Brown

Jerry Brown, with his wife, Anne Gust Brown by his side is sworn in by Tani Cantil-Sakauye, Chief Justice of the California State Supreme Court, right, during his inauguration at Memorial Auditorium in 2011.

Dan Morain

By Dan Morain
12/28/2014 8:38 AM

Amid pomp and self-important speechifying, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, Attorney General Kamala Harris and the other statewide elected officials will take their oaths of office a week from Monday.

On that same day, at the Stanley Mosk Courthouse across from the Capitol, Gov. Jerry Brown will preside over what will be an understated but far more historic ceremony, the swearing-in of the newest justices of the California Supreme Court, Obama administration attorney Leondra Krugerand Stanford Law School professor Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar.

With that act, the governor will have reshaped the seven-member court he lost in 1986. Enflamed by a shrewd campaign that exploited the court’s unwillingness to affirm death sentences, voters that year ousted three Brown appointees, Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird among them.

It was a watershed and perhaps the most lasting legacy of Brown’s first eight years as governor. Republican governors’ appointees have controlled the seven-justice court ever since. With Kruger and Cuéllar joining Goodwin Liu, whom he appointed in 2011, Brown is creating perhaps the most far-reaching achievement of his second eight years in office.

“I was happy to find these people,” Brown told me the other day. “I think they are exemplary. They’re talented. They shine. I think this court will be noticed.”

Kruger, is 38, half Brown’s age. Cuéllar is 42, and Liu is 44. Given their age, they could shape the law for decades to come, unless some Democratic president taps one or more to serve on the one or two federal courts that are seen as more prestigious.

A retired appellate justice groused that the appointees lack judicial experience. As old prosecutors might say, they have not smelled the sweat of a lying addict on a witness stand.

Why, asked former Speaker Willie Brown, did the governor look to the Obama administration’s Solicitor General’s Office for an appointee who is African American, Kruger? Surely, there are qualified California practitioners.

Brown explained his thinking by drawing on history. True, Cuéllar came from Stanford and Liu from UC Berkeley’s Boalt Hall School of Law.

But Phil Gibson was Gov. Culbert Olson’s finance director in 1939 when Olson appointed him to the high court. Gibson served 24 years as chief justice. Roger Traynor was teaching at Boalt Hall when Olson appointed him in 1940. Traynor became one of the greatest justices ever to serve on this or any other high court. Gov. Pat Brown elevated him to chief justice in 1964.

Presidents must navigate a hyperpoliticized gauntlet in the U.S. Senate to get their judicial nominees confirmed. Not so in California. Here, the law recognizes that judicial appointments are a governor’s prerogative. The Commission on Judicial Appointments, led by Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, quickly confirmed Brown’s selections, including Kruger last week.

All three are Ivy League sorts, with back stories. Liu, whose parents emigrated from Taiwan and are doctors, went to Rio Americano High School in Sacramento, and Yale Law School, Brown’s alma mater.

To read entire column, click here.