Growing up in a hardscrabble town along the Rio Grande in Mexico, Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar crossed the border with his brother each day to attend school in Brownsville, Texas, long before his path led to Harvard, Yale and Stanford.
On Tuesday, Gov. Jerry Brown took Cuéllar's immigrant journey to new heights, nominating the prominent Stanford University law professor to a vacancy on the California Supreme Court -- in the process adding a Latino to the state's high court and again choosing a legal scholar without judicial experience to reshape the court for decades to come.
The governor's selection of Cuéllar, known for his expertise in immigration and other policy issues, including stints as an adviser in the Obama administration, is likely to contribute to one of the most profound shifts in the Supreme Court's composition and ideology since the late 1980s.
The 41-year-old Cuéllar, known as "Tino," would replace Justice Marvin Baxter, a longtime conservative stalwart who recently announced that he will retire at the end of the year. A three-member commission that includes Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye and Attorney General Kamala Harris must confirm Cuéllar, but that is ordinarily a formality.
"Tino Cuéllar is a renowned scholar," the governor said in a statement. "His vast knowledge and even temperament will, without question, add further luster to our highest court."
Brown has been under pressure to name a Latino to the court since Justice Carlos Moreno stepped down three years ago. The state's Latino legislative caucus quickly praised Cuéllar's selection on Tuesday.
And the governor is not done transforming the state Supreme Court. Brown also must still name a replacement for Justice Joyce Kennard, who retired earlier this year.
By naming Cuéllar now, the governor assures that he will be on the November ballot, enabling the new justice to be approved by the voters for a full 12-year term.
In opting for Cuéllar, Brown has reached into the law school ranks for a second time, foregoing the traditional approach of elevating appeals court justices or federal judges. His other Supreme Court pick this term was Goodwin Liu, a UC-Berkeley law scholar who has received high marks since joining the court.
The combination of Cuéllar and Liu, who is 43, is likely to have a lasting impact on the court, given their youth.
"(Cuéllar's) nomination will add substantial intellectual firepower," said Shaun Martin, a University of San Diego law professor who blogs on the court.
Cuéllar has been at Stanford since 2001, specializing in administrative and immigration law and serving in key roles in the Obama administration, writing on subjects ranging from border security to international refugee camps. He was a special assistant on justice and regulatory policy for the White House in 2009 and 2010 and also served on the president's transition team in 2008.
At Stanford, Cuéllar has been director of the school's international studies program for the past year.
Cuéllar's life mirrors the classic immigrant's tale. After living in the Mexican border town of Matamoros, where he made his daily trek to school in Texas, his family got permanent resident visas and moved to Calexico in California's Imperial County, where he attended high school.
Cuéllar, in a statement, said he was "enormously honored" by the nomination.
In an interview with Stanford Magazine last year, Cuéllar recalled how his upbringing influenced his view of politics and government, saying the expectations at his high school were low for Mexican students, many of them children of farmworkers.
He also recounted being stopped for his papers as a teenager, and that "it was a common thing to be surrounded by law enforcement."
Yet, Cuéllar told the magazine, "Part of what happened to me when I moved to the U.S. with a green card was there was a clear sense that even the very imperfect country I was joining was an extraordinary place."
Cuéllar, who later became a U.S. citizen, went on to get his undergraduate degree from Harvard and his law degree from Yale, and a philosophy degree from Stanford. He also clerked for 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Mary Schroeder.
Cuéllar's ascension to the state Supreme Court creates one of California's pre-eminent power couples. He is married to San Jose U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh, who has developed a national reputation for her handling of high-tech cases such as the Apple v. Samsung patent feud and the Silicon Valley poaching lawsuit. They have two young children.
With Cuéllar taking over Baxter's seat, Brown is expected to focus his attention now on Kennard's seat, which has been vacant longer.
There is no indication when the governor might act, but among the candidates floated have been UCLA law school Dean Rachel Moran, San Francisco appeals court Justice Martin Jenkins and James Humes, presiding justice of the appeals court in San Francisco and a former top Brown aide who would become the first openly gay justice if selected.
Howard Mintz covers legal affairs. Contact him at 408-286-0236 or follow him at Twitter.com/hmintz.