Stanford law professor Mariano-Florentino Cuellar, nominated by Gov. Jerry Brown for a seat on the California Supreme Court, sailed through his confirmation hearing Thursday after a state bar evaluating panel gave him its highest rating.
Cuellar, 41, a Mexican immigrant with degrees from some of the most illustrious U.S. colleges, will be the only Latino on the seven-member high court and one of only two Democratic appointees. Dominated for decades by Republican appointees, the influential court is undergoing a transformation that is likely to send it in a more liberal direction.
The unanimous approval of Cuellar by the three-member Commission on Judicial Appointments clears the way for his name to appear on the November ballot. If approved by voters as expected, Cuellar will take the seat of retiring Justice Marvin R. Baxter, whose 12-year term expires in January.
No one testified in opposition to Cuellar, and he was given a standing ovation after the commission's vote. Court of Appeal Justice Joan Dempsey Klien, a member of the commission, had only one question for Cuellar: "Where have you been all these years that Gov. Brown has been looking for justices?"
Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye asked Cuellar to identify his favorite area of the law. Cuellar replied that it was administrative law.
Atty. Gen. Kamala D. Harris, the third commissioner, noted that Cuellar has vast experience as a scholar and policy-maker but has never been a judge.
"It helps that I am married to one," Cuellar quipped. His wife is U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh, who sat with him and their two young children during the hearing.
State bar evaluators rated Cuellar as "exceptionally well-qualified."
"He is a brilliant scholar, an excellent writer and speaker, and enjoys a stellar reputation for his achievements in academia," said Jason P. Lee, chairman of the Commission on Judicial Nominees Evaluation. He praised Cuellar for his "wide array of academic and governmental experience" and his "remarkable ability to build and maintain consensus even amongst those with disparate interests."
Cuellar described himself in a judicial application, which was made public this week, as curious about the world, energetic, gregarious and passionate about ideas and people. "I tend to see the glass more half-full than half-empty," he said.
During his testimony Thursday, Cuellar credited his parents for teaching him and his younger brother "about integrity every step of the way."
Cuellar's answers to questions contained in the application underscored the relatively little time he has spent in a courtroom. He said he has not appeared in a court for five years or tried any cases to verdict. He has no experience in civil litigation or criminal practice and has never taken a deposition or argued before an appeals court.
But he has written or co-written two books and dozens of scholarly articles or book chapters, in addition to working as a university professor and administrator and a federal executive branch official. He previously clerked for the U.S. 9th Circuit Judge Mary M. Schroeder.
Born in Matamoros, Mexico, Cuellar crossed the border on foot as a child to attend a school in Texas. He moved with his family to Calexico in the Imperial Valley when he was 14 and graduated from Calexico High School. Cuellar received a bachelor's degree from Harvard College, a law degree from Yale Law School and a doctorate in political science from Stanford. He became a U.S. citizen in 1994.
In addition to his academic work, Cuellar has served in two Democratic administrations.
He worked on the Obama-Biden transition team on immigration policy and spent a year as a special assistant to the president on justice and regulatory affairs for the White House Domestic Policy Council. Cuellar also did a two-year stint in the Clinton administration as a senior advisor to a Treasury Department undersecretary.
Brown still has another opening to fill on the state's highest court. Legal analysts said three Democratic appointees could create a new majority, joining with Justice Kathryn Mickle Werdegar, a Republican appointee with a moderate to liberal record.