New CA Supreme Court Justices Meet the Bar

Candice Shih 
Candice Shih
March 9, 2015

Just three months into their tenure as California Supreme Court Justices, Leondra Kruger and Mariano-Florentino Cuellar introduced themselves to a packed house at a meeting of the ABTL last week.

Their conversation, moderated by Justice Carol Corrigan, covered their childhoods, development of their legal careers, experiences on the bench thus far, and pet peeves.

Both emphasized their California upbringings. Justice Kruger, whose law practice had been focused in Washington, D.C., said her upbringing was “a very California story, a very American story.” Her parents were both pediatricians, her mother from Jamaica and her father the son of Eastern European immigrants. They raised her in Pasadena and inspired her to find a way to be useful to her community.

Justice Cuellar, who was born in Matamoros, Tamaulipas, Mexico and emigrated when he was 14, described how he was shaped by the proximity of the U.S. border. He is now on a task force that is working on making the courts more accessible to limited English speakers.

Both justices then attended Harvard University and Yale Law School. Their careers diverged from there.

Justice Cuellar, who worked at the U.S. Department of Treasury and was a professor at Stanford University, admitted to being a bit of a policy wonk. He said he has empathy for people in the executive branch but also balances that with the heavy responsibility of due process.

Justice Kruger, who was an assistant to the U.S. Solicitor General, argued 12 times in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. She admitted having nerves before her first argument but also having prepared so much that she was “too tired to be nervous.”

Now, she finds being on the bench much less stressful. Justice Kruger also downplayed the importance of oral argument. “Oral argument is about one hour. But we live with the briefs for months,” she said.

Both were sworn in as Associate Justices on January 5, 2015 and have taken part in three oral arguments. Justice Kruger said she expected the job to be lonely but found the environment to be much more collaborative. She noted that, while the U.S. Supreme Court Justices do not talk to each other about a case until oral argument – thereby sometimes making the oral argument a conversation among themselves – her new colleagues discuss the cases in advance and can focus the issues.

Justice Cuellar also praised his co-Justices and said, “I feel empowered and we’re grafted on to each others’ minds.”

As for what they’re looking for in briefs, Justice Cuellar said he valued “intellectually honest” briefs that acknowledge weaknesses and establish credibility. He also asked for shorter briefs where possible. Justice Kruger said she prefers briefs that are written like proposed draft opinions. She also said a writer’s credibility is damaged with typos, mischaracterizations of authorities, and an uncivil tone.

Justice Corrigan concluded the discussion by saying how lucky she felt to be working with both of the new Justices and encouraged everyone else to feel the same way.