San Francisco Chronicle
Justice resigns, opening spot in state high court
California Supreme Court Justice MarianoFlorentino Cuéllar, a 2015 appointee of former Gov. Jerry Brown and one of the court’s more liberal members, is resigning to become president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Cuéllar, 49, announced his departure Thursday, two days after the voters rejected a recall of Gov. Gavin Newsom, who will nominate his successor.
His resignation, effective Nov. 1, was first reported by the New York Times. He told the Times he hoped to bring a “fresh perspective” to the Carnegie think tank, whose previous president, William Burns, is now President Biden’s CIA director.
Cuéllar told reporters the recall election had not affected his decision. Asked why he was leaving, he said, “I have had a terrific run at the court with amazing colleagues,” but he also noted his past work in international affairs. “We should all go and do what engages us and also what will help us leave the world a better place,” he said.
Cuéllar, known as Tino, was born in the northern Mexican town of Matamoros and, as a boy, walked 7 miles each way over a border crossing to attend a Catholic school in Texas. When he was 14, his father got immigration papers and moved the family to Calexico (Imperial County), where he had a job teaching Spanish.
Cuéllar earned a college degree at Harvard, a law degree at Yale and a doctorate in political science at Stanford, where he became a law professor in 2001 and directed the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Affairs.
He also served in two presidential administrations: as an adviser in Bill Clinton’s Treasury Department and as assistant for justice and regulatory policy on Barack Obama’s Domestic Policy Council. On that council, he led the White House effort that helped persuade Congress in 2010 to repeal the “don’t ask, don’t tell” law, which allowed gays and lesbians to serve in the armed forces only if they concealed their sexual orientation. He was also co-chairman of Presidentelect Obama’s working group on immigration.
Cuéllar was the fourth Latino justice in the court’s history. His appointment, and others by Brown, gave the court a majority of Democratic appointees for the first time since 1987. The court now has a 5-2 Democratic majority but reaches a consensus in most of its rulings, with relatively few that are closely divided.
One rare 4-3 decision came in 2018, when a majority upheld a voterapproved state law requiring police to collect DNA samples from anyone arrested on suspicion of committing a felony. Cuéllar dissented, calling the law “a major intrusion into the privacy of all the people subject to its procedures.”
This March, he wrote an opinion for a unanimous court that reduced the impact of California’s cash bail system, which the voters had refused to abolish in November. The ruling said judges in most cases must consider a defendant’s ability to pay before setting bail in any amount.
Asked Thursday which decisions he wanted to be remembered for, he mentioned, among others, the bail ruling and a 2017 ruling allowing suits against pharmaceutical companies for defective warning labels in generic versions of their products.
Newsom’s only previous appointee to the court was Martin Jenkins, the governor’s former legal affairs adviser and the first openly gay justice on the state’s high court.
Newsom’s office thanked Cuéllar for his service and said in a statement that the governor “looks forward to considering several highly qualified candidates to fill the impending vacancy in the coming months, drawing from a broad, experienced pool of candidates that reflects all aspects of the state’s diversity.”
Cuéllar’s wife, Lucy Koh, is a federal judge in San Jose who has been nominated by President Biden to the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco.
“It should be an easy transition for Justice Cuéllar, going from the finest ‘think tank’ in California to the greatest ‘think tank’ in the world,” said Gerald Uelmen, former law school dean at Santa Clara University.