Gov. Brown's Surprise Pick to Fill Supreme Court Vacancy

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Post updated at 5:20 p.m.

Update November 25th at 3:00 p.m. : The Governor's press release states that the three-member panel that will vote on his Supreme Court nominee includes the senior presiding justice of the state Court of Appeal Joan Dempsey Klein.

In fact, according to a spokesman for the courts, Justice Klein is retiring at the end of the year and will be replaced by First District Court of Appeal Justice J. Anthony Kline. Justice Kline, by the way, was appointed to the bench in 1980 the first time Jerry Brown was governor.

Keeping with his apparent penchant for "outside-the-box" judicial appointments, Gov. Jerry Brown Monday named a 38-year-old African-American lawyer with the federal government to the California Supreme Court.

Leondra R. Kruger is a deputy assistant attorney general at the U.S. Department of Justice in the Office of Legal Counsel. She previously served as a acting principal deputy solicitor general.

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Kruger has never been a judge before, but as a top attorney in the Justice Department has argued 12 cases before the U.S. Supreme Court.  She is described by those who know her as a rising star and a legal superstar who's exceptionally smart and very talented.

She is not, however, well known, even in African-American legal circles. One of the top board members with the Charles Houston Bar Association and a member of the California Association of Black Lawyers didn't know her at all.

In fact, it's safe to say that Kruger, who was born and raised in the Los Angeles area, was on no one's list of likely Supreme Court nominees by Brown. Although she grew up in Southern California, she's never practiced law in the state, much less sat on the bench.

Leondra Kruger. (Office of Gov. Jerry Brown.)
Leondra Kruger. (Office of Gov. Jerry Brown.)

Nonetheless, UC Davis law Professor Vik Amar notes Kruger has plenty of appellate court experience.

"She's been writing briefs for the Supreme Court, she's been doing arguments," Amar says. "So she's not somebody who is ignorant of the kinds of things that justices need to think about when they decide cases."

Amar called Kruger "a whiz-kid, superstar type," a graduate of first Harvard and then Yale Law School, where she was editor of the law journal. She went on to clerk at both the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., and for U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens.

In her most recent assignment at the Justice Department, she has served in the Office of Legal Counsel. Amar described the OLC as "the elite lawyers who advise the president on complicated legal matters."

Brown's naming of Kruger follows the appointment of two other non-judges -- UC Berkeley law Professor Goodwin Liu and Stanford Law's Mariano-Florentino Cuellar -- to the state's highest court. All three are under age 45 and likely to have long judicial careers. And, like Associate Justices Liu and Cuellar, Kruger is a graduate of Yale Law School -- as is Brown himself.

"I think it's a nice thing to expand the pool of potential candidates beyond just trial court and appellate court judges in California," Amar said. "Now maybe there are judges in the lower courts in California who might be a little annoyed that Gov. Brown is going outside the judiciary. But if you want to make the California Supreme Court the best supreme court in the country among state supreme courts, and I think it seems like that's what Brown wants to do, then you do that more easily if you expand your pool so you have a lot more people to choose from."

UC Hastings law professor Rory Little knows Kruger and says, "She is not a political actor in the overt sense you would think of. I would not know her politics other than to guess at them from the judges she clerked for."

Indeed, Kruger joined the U.S. Department of Justice when George W. Bush was president. She clerked for Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, who was appointed by a Republican president (Gerald Ford) but became one of the court's most liberal members.

If confirmed, Kruger will fill the seat vacated by Associate Justice Joyce Kennard when she retired in April. Kruger will be the first African-American to serve on the court since 2005.

Here's the press release from the governor's office on Kruger's appointment:

SACRAMENTO – Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr. today announced Leondra R. Kruger as his choice for associate justice of the California Supreme Court.

Leondra R. Kruger, 38, of Washington, D.C., has served as a Deputy Assistant Attorney General at the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Legal Counsel since 2013. She served as an Assistant to the Solicitor General and as Acting Principal Deputy Solicitor General in the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of the Solicitor General from 2007 to 2013. While serving in that office, she argued 12 cases on behalf of the federal government before the U.S. Supreme Court.

“Leondra Kruger is a distinguished lawyer and uncommon student of the law,” said Governor Brown. “She has won the respect of eminent jurists, scholars and practitioners alike.”

“I am deeply honored by Governor Brown's nomination,” said Kruger. “I look forward to returning home to California and, if confirmed, serving the people of California on our state's highest court.”

Kruger was a visiting assistant professor at the University of Chicago Law School in 2007 and an associate at Wilmer, Cutler, Pickering, Hale and Dorr LLP from 2004 to 2006. She served as a law clerk to the Honorable John Paul Stevens on the U.S. Supreme Court from 2003 to 2004 and to the Honorable David S. Tatel on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit from 2002 to 2003. Kruger was an associate at Jenner and Block LLP from 2001 to 2002.

“I am delighted to congratulate Leondra Kruger on her nomination to the California Supreme Court,” said U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder, Jr. “Leondra is an extraordinarily talented attorney who has been a leader within the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel and Office of the Solicitor General. Her remarkable judgment, tireless work ethic, and dedication to the highest ideals of public service have marked her as one of the foremost leaders of her profession. I am certain that she will be an excellent and thoughtful Supreme Court Justice who will serve the people of California with distinction for many years. I will miss working with Leondra, but I am proud to join my colleagues in wishing her all the best as she begins a new chapter in her already extraordinary career."

... Kruger earned a Juris Doctor degree from Yale Law School, where she was editor-in-chief of the Yale Law Journal, and a Bachelor of Arts degree from Harvard University, where she graduated magna cum laude and was a member of Phi Beta Kappa. Kruger was born and raised in the Los Angeles area. She is a member of the State Bar of California.

“Leondra is an exemplary, outstanding graduate of the Yale Law School,” said Yale Law School Dean and Sol and Lillian Goldman Professor of Law Robert Post. “She has a proven track-record of exceptional public service and achievement. I am confident that she shall become a superb Justice, a magnificent fiduciary for the laws and welfare of the people of California.”

Kruger will replace Associate Justice Joyce L. Kennard, who retired from the court earlier this year. The compensation for this position is $225,342.

The Governor's nomination must be submitted to the State Bar's Commission on Judicial Nominees Evaluation and confirmed by the Commission on Judicial Appointments. The Commission on Judicial Appointments consists of Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, Attorney General Kamala D. Harris and senior presiding justice of the state Court of Appeal Joan Dempsey Klein.