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Carlos Moreno's resignation from California Supreme Court creates opportunity for Jerry Brown

Carlos Moreno's decision to resign paves the way for the new governor to put his stamp on the high court. His selection of a successor to the panel's only Latino and Democrat will be closely watched.

January 07, 2011|By Maura Dolan, Los Angeles Times
  • Carlos R. Moreno is sworn in as a justice on the California Supreme Court by Gov. Gray Davis in October 2001. Moreno, who announced his resignation Thursday, was Davis only appointment to the panel.
Carlos R. Moreno is sworn in as a justice on the California Supreme Court… (Justin Sullivan / Associated…)

The unexpected decision by Justice Carlos R. Moreno to retire from the California Supreme Court has created an early opportunity for Gov. Jerry Brown to put his stamp on the state's highest court.


FOR THE RECORD:
An article about Justice Carlos R. Moreno's resignation from the California Supreme Court in Friday's Section A said Moreno was a Princeton University graduate. He is a graduate of Yale University.

Moreno, 62, the only Latino and Democrat on the court, said Brown's election cemented his decision to leave for work as either a private judge or for a private law firm. The retirement this month of Chief Justice Ronald M. George and the transition in the governor's office had prodded him to "try something new while I am still young enough and vigorous enough," Moreno said in an interview.

"I saw transition in the air," said Moreno, who was appointed to the top court by former Gov. Gray Davis in 2001.

Brown's selection of Moreno's successor will be closely watched. His office said Brown received Moreno's resignation Thursday and thanked him for his service.

"The governor intends to fill Justice Moreno's seat with a candidate who is equally knowledgeable, thoughtful and judicious," a Brown spokesman said.

Brown infuriated conservatives in 1977 by naming Rose Bird, a friend and member of his cabinet, as chief justice. Bird had never been a judge, and she voted to overturn every death sentence she reviewed. In 1986, voters rejected her in a retention election, defeating two other Brown appointees on the state high court at the same time.

During his campaign last year, Brown said he would make judicial appointments differently this time around. He said he was trying to make a point with his early judicial selections. Bird was the first woman to serve on the state's highest court. It is now headed by a Filipina American, and four of its seven jurists are women.

Among the candidates Brown is expected to consider is Court of Appeal Justice Martin Jenkins, a former federal trial judge and prosecutor who is considered politically moderate. Jenkins, placed on the state appeals court by former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, would be the only African American on the court, although others have served in the past.

Another potential successor is appeals court Justice Maria Rivera, a Davis appointee who is considered liberal on issues of discrimination. Other names mentioned Thursday were Arturo Gonzalez, a successful litigator who has been active in the San Francisco bar association, and Thomas Saenz, who heads the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund. Neither Gonzalez nor Saenz has judicial experience.

Legal analysts said Brown also might consider Court of Appeal justices he appointed many years ago, including Arthur Gilbert and J. Anthony Kline, who have decades of experience.

Although Moreno was the court's only Democrat, he blended in easily during his first years on the court, most of whose justices are moderately conservative. He described himself as a "moderate-to-liberal centrist" and said that he did not favor big leaps in the law. During one 15-month period examined by Santa Clara law professor Gerald Uelmen, Moreno agreed with the conservatives as often as with the more liberal members.

Uelmen said Wednesday that Moreno was just slightly left of George, considered the swing vote between liberals and conservatives. One of Moreno's greatest opinions, Uelmen said, was one that permitted demonstrators to protest at a private shopping mall, "preserving free speech under the California Constitution."

"I think he is leaving with an excellent reputation as a very thoughtful and very fair judge," Uelmen said.

Moreno's profile grew during the last two years as he staked out more liberal positions and filed solo dissents. He was the only justice on the court to vote to overturn Proposition 8, the 2008 ballot measure that reinstated a ban on same-sex marriage. He said in his 2009 dissent that the initiative was a threat to all minorities.

At the time the court was examining the measure, President Obama was considering Moreno for the U.S. Supreme Court. Moreno's dissent could have doomed any chance he had. Obama chose Justice Sonia Sotomayor instead.

Moreno also wrote a ruling that recognized the parental rights of a non-biological mother in a lesbian relationship and another that barred businesses from treating domestic partners differently than married couples.

J. Clark Kelso, a professor at the McGeorge School of Law, said Moreno embraced civil rights for gay couples long before the marriage case surfaced, sided with consumers and voted with prosecutors on criminal cases as a "law and order" justice.

"There were quite a few cases where he was writing opinions to make sure that consumers weren't put in an unfair position," Kelso said. "You see a justice who was concerned about the rights of individual people."

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