SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — A California Supreme Court justice said Thursday that he will leave after next month to head an international think tank, giving Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom his second appointment to the high court.
Justice Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar will become the new president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace after departing the court on Oct. 31.
Newsom “looks forward to considering several highly qualified candidates" in coming months, his office said in a statement thanking and congratulating Cuéllar.
The governor will draw "from a broad, experienced pool of candidates that reflects all aspects of the state’s diversity – a core tenet the administration works to advance at all levels of state government.”
The announcement comes days after nearly two-thirds of voters kept Newsom in office by rejecting a mid-term recall election.
“I think it probably took most people by surprise that (Cuéllar) would leave the court, and for a think tank,” said David Ettinger, an appellate lawyer who writes a blog about the California Supreme Court called At the Lectern. “Maybe that’s because of his academic background that he feels he can make more of a difference that way than as a member of the court.”
Ettinger expects Newsom to appoint “a Latinx judge, someone who’s both Latinx and a sitting (appeals court) judge currently,” though no particular individual jumps to the forefront.
Ettinger does not believe the announcement’s timing was a coincidence.
“He probably would not want Gov. Elder to appoint his successor to the court,” Ettinger said, referring to conservative talk show host Larry Elder, who would have replaced Newsom. ”That is my guess. He wouldn’t have left the court if the recall had succeeded.”
Cuéllar did not say if the recall played a role in his decision or the timing of his announcement, though his move has been in the works for a while.
Cuéllar was appointed by former governor Jerry Brown in 2014 and took the bench in January 2015 after serving in the administration of former President Barack Obama.
The court is dominated by nominees of Democratic governors, though many of its decisions are unanimous. Two of the seven were appointed by former GOP governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, including Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye. Four were appointed by Brown and one by Newsom, both Democrats.
Whomever Newsom nominates will go before the Commission on Judicial Appointments for confirmation.
Cuéllar was born in northern Mexico before moving to the United States at age 14 and becoming a naturalized U.S. citizen at age 21. Carnegie board chairwoman Penny Pritzker called it a “quintessentially American immigrant story.”
He serves on a diverse court that most recently saw Newsom nominate the first openly gay Black man to the state Supreme Court with last year's appointment of Martin Jenkins.
“I have been fortunate to serve the people of California for nearly seven years on our highest court — a distinction I could not have imagined when I first arrived here as a high school student in the Imperial Valley,” Cuéllar said in a statement.
Cuéllar said the court has tried to provide “impartial justice in a vast and diverse state” while safeguarding “freedom, democracy, and the rule of law.”
The Carnegie Endowment, he said, “has worked on closely related challenges on a global scale” and he plans to “apply some of the insights rooted in my experience in California as it endeavors to address our most pressing global challenges.”
In the Obama administration, he led the White House Domestic Policy Council’s efforts on civil and criminal justice, public health, immigration, and ending the military’s Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell policy. He also led the Presidential Transition Task Force on Immigration and and co-chaired the U.S. Department of Education’s Equity and Excellence Commission, according to his official biography.
Cuéllar will be Carnegie’s 10th president in its 111-year history.
“He’s very smart, thoughtful, engaged, but those descriptions can apply to a lot of the justices," Ettinger said. "He’s a bit more willing than some of the others to be outspoken.”
He joined Justice Goodwin Liu in several statements addressing police violence against Black people, what they termed a dysfunctional death penalty system, and the right to an education.
“My guess is he will be missed at the court,” Ettinger added. “He appears to me to be a very collegial colleague ... and a hard worker, pulling his share."
Cuéllar has degrees from Harvard University, Yale Law School and Stanford University and is married to Judge Lucy Koh of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California.