Jerry Brown’s first turn as California governor produced some epic controversies, none larger than his effort to reshape the state Supreme Court.
Brown introduced diversity to the court, appointing the first woman, the first African American and the first Latino justices. His successors have added to the court’s ethnic and gender mix, and, governors (and presidents) now routinely consider gender and ethnicity in making judicial appointments.
But Brown’s early choices, especially Chief Justice Rose Bird, sparked an unprecedented political battle, fueled by the court’s handling of death penalty cases.
In 1986, voters unseated Bird and Associate Justices Cruz Reynoso and Joseph Grodin after an expensive and divisive campaign. (Brown’s other appointee, Wiley Manuel, died in office.) The court has been dominated by justices appointed by Republican governors ever since.
California’s death penalty is still unsettled, but that battle has largely moved into the federal courts. And, almost four decades after making his first appointments, Brown is again reshaping the state Supreme Court. This time, he’s doing so without much uproar.
His first appointment was Godwin Liu, a nationally renowned legal scholar. Brown made his second appointment this week, choosing another nationally recognized legal scholar, Stanford law professor Mariano-Florentino Cuellar.
Like Bird and Grodin, they lack prior judicial experience. But their academic standing brings intellectual firepower to a court that used to be among the most influential in the nation, its opinions shaping rulings in other states and the federal courts.
There’s still one more vacancy to be filled, and Brown’s choice could shift the court’s majority away from the conservative justices, most of whom were promoted from lower courts.
“Judges who come off the courts of appeal are into a kind of culture of affirmance,” Santa Clara University Law School dean Gerald Uelman told the Los Angeles Times. “They may regard issues as well settled even though we should be taking another look. That is where academics shine — in identifying areas that are ripe for change.”
The generally positive reaction to Brown’s nominees can be attributed in part to a more mature governor, less intent on making bold statements and upsetting the status quo. It also reflects the political changes that have taken place since 1977, when Republicans still dominated the statewide electorate and women and minorities seldom got picked for top government jobs.