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California Supreme Court Justice Carlos Moreno

Posted By Kevin R. Johnson, May 28, 2009

Since Associate Justice David Souter announced his intention to step down from the U.S. Supreme Court, a public discussion of potential nominees ensued as President Obama's administration went through its process of vetting candidates. Many King Hall faculty, including Associate Dean Vik Amar, Professor John Oakley, and I offered our insights to various media outlets about many of the candidates on the President's "short list." Judge Sonia Sotomayor, the President's pick announced on May 27, is an extremely accomplished and compelling nominee. Another jurist whom the President seriously considered, and who may receive consideration again when there are additional vacancies on the Court, happens to be a special friend of UC Davis School of Law who recently shared some of his experiences with the King Hall community.

Judge Moreno

Just last March, Justice Carlos R. Moreno of the California Supreme Court visited King Hall as part of La Raza Law Students Association's César Chávez Week celebration, relating thoughts on his journey as a pioneering Latino in the law and the judiciary. Always generous with his time, Justice Moreno previously had come to UC Davis a few years ago to talk with students and faculty.

Moreno described his background as the son of a Mexican immigrant mother who arrived in the country with few skills and no resources after the death of his father. He grew up in a home where Spanish was the first language and where no family member had an education beyond high school. 

Moreno went to Yale University for college, got his J.D. degree at Stanford Law School, and went on to a spectacular career in law, working for the Los Angeles District Attorney and then in private practice before being appointed to the California Municipal Court (Compton) and later  the Los Angeles County Superior Court in 1993.  President Bill Clinton nominated Moreno to serve on the United States District Court for the Central District of California in 1998, and he was unanimously confirmed by the U.S. Senate.  In 2001, Governor Gray Davis nominated him for the Supreme Court of California.

In his recent talk with our students, I was again impressed with the humility, warmth, and insight of Justice Moreno.  He spoke at length about the challenges of his work as a judge and the need to "use legal principles and doctrines that we'll be proud of and that will stand the test of time."  Pointing to Korematsu v. United States, the 1944 Supreme Court ruling upholding the internment of persons of Japanese ancestry during World War II, Moreno noted that our courts have not always lived up to this responsibility.  Moreno said he thinks about how posterity will judge the California Supreme Court's decisions on the death penalty, the right to marry, and other controversial issues.  "I ask myself as a judge: will the justice we render today be the kind of justice that will endure for generations, or will it become another Dred Scott or Korematsu?" he said.  That keen sense of historical judgment no doubt informed his passionate dissent in the Proposition 8 case recently handed down from his court.

The Justice also took several questions from the student audience and remarked on his experiences as a Latino in law school.

I have known Justice Moreno for a number of years and share roots in Los Angeles.  I have always been impressed by him, his friendliness, and his interest in the judicial process and legal education.  Obviously intellectually qualified, Justice Moreno can also exhibit empathy for people and the human condition, which President Obama has said is important in a Supreme Court Justice.  Justice Moreno has been a foster parent, willing to help out a young person with difficult and severe medical needs.  We have talked about how his family, then living in Chavez Ravine, a Mexican-American barrio in downtown Los Angeles, was relocated when the Los Angeles Dodgers built Dodger Stadium there.  Unlike some others who were moved, Justice Moreno harbors no bitterness toward the Dodgers and, indeed, is a rabid L.A. Dodgers fan to this day.  

Ultimately, I believe that Justice Moreno has the experience as a lawyer, state, and federal judge, as well as the judicial temperament, dignity, and decency that we should all should look for in the leaders of our judicial system.  And we at UC Davis School of Law wish him the best!