Gov. Jerry Brown has always sought to be a transformational leader. In his first stint as governor, three of his appointees to the California Supreme Court were indeed transformational, but perhaps not in the way Brown had hoped.
In a historic move, the state's voters removed Chief Justice Rose Bird and Associate Justices Cruz Reynoso and Joseph Grodin from the bench.
Once again, circumstances have conspired to offer Brown the opportunity to impact the philosophical makeup of the state's highest court, which had been made up entirely of Republican appointments when he took office.
He is doing just that, but this time the older and wiser Brown thankfully seems to be searching for exceptional scholars rather than staunch ideologues.
That is clearly on display with the nomination Tuesday of Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar to replace Justice Marvin Baxter. Cuéllar is a distinguished Stanford University law professor who has worked in the public sector.
In 2011, Brown appointed Goodwin Liu, then a UC Berkeley law professor, to the court and still has one more vacancy on the seven-member court, as he must replace retired Justice Joyce Kennard.
The 41-year-old Cuéllar has been teaching at Stanford since 2001, and one colleague described him as "certainly to the left of the middle of the American political spectrum" but added that he is "fundamentally a pragmatist." His legal scholarship, especially in the area of administrative law and immigration, is widely acclaimed and highly regarded.
But Cuéllar's personal story is as compelling as his scholarship. He was born in Matamoros, Mexico, and as child he legally crossed the border every day to go to a Catholic school in Brownsville, Texas.
When he was 14, his parents received their green cards and relocated to California's Imperial Valley. He became a U.S. citizen as soon as he was able in 1994. He has always excelled in school, receiving a bachelor's degree from Harvard College, a law degree from Yale Law School and a doctorate in political science from Stanford.
Cuéllar also served as a special assistant for justice and regulatory policy in the Obama White House in 2009 and 2010, co-chaired the Obama transition team's immigration policy working group, and worked in the Clinton administration's U.S. Treasury Department from 1997 to 1999. He is married to U.S. District Judge Lucy H. Koh.
His nomination still must be approved by the state's three-member Commission on Judicial Appointments and then by the voters on the Nov. 4 ballot. Both should be mere formalities.
Brown had received significant pressure to appoint a Latino to the bench. Cuéllar is an exemplary answer to those requests, and his life experience should enhance the court's understanding of the complex issues that face California.