How California Judge Leondra Kruger Rose to Be on Biden's Supreme Court Short List

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A portrait of a woman with glasses.
Leondra Kruger, an associate justice of the Supreme Court of California, poses for photos in San Francisco on Feb. 3, 2022.  (Jeff Chiu/AP)

California Supreme Court Justice Leondra Kruger is hardly a household name. But to those who know her well, it is no surprise that she's on President Biden’s short list to fill the seat of retiring U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer.

When a vacancy on the California Supreme Court opened up in 2014, then-Gov. Jerry Brown spent months searching for a replacement. Kruger — then 38 years old — was living on the East Coast, working for the solicitor general’s office in the Obama Justice Department.

"As soon as I met her, I was very impressed," Brown said in 2019 after he left office.

When Brown nominated her, there was some grumbling that he didn’t choose an attorney or judge practicing in California — a criticism Brown brushed off. "I don’t think you’ve heard a peep of criticism," he said. "[She's] very independent, very well reasoned, very well prepared."

Born and raised in Pasadena, Kruger graduated from Harvard before heading to Yale Law School. Common descriptions of her tend to say she's studious, serious and focused.

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"She's very quiet. She's reserved. She is, I think, more of a shy personality," said NYU School of Law professor Melissa Murray. Murray was at Yale when Kruger became editor-in-chief of the Yale Law Journal — the first Black woman to hold that prestigious position.

"It was a really exciting moment, a real accomplishment, not just for her, but I think we all sort of took great pride in what she was able to accomplish," Murray recalled.

Murray said she and Kruger bonded at Yale over their common family background.

"Her mother was from Jamaica. Both of my parents are from Jamaica, so I think we initially talked about that," Murray said. "She had basically grown up in California in the Los Angeles area, the daughter of two doctors."

In 2014, Murray was teaching at Berkeley Law and heard the criticism when Brown picked Kruger — a Washington, D.C., lawyer instead of one working in California.

"This wasn't a carpetbagging situation," Murray said. "She was impeccably qualified and this was a governor who I think was incredibly determined to put his stamp on the judiciary. And he did."

After graduating from Yale, Kruger clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens. UC Hastings law school professor Rory Little, who worked for Stevens years earlier, said Kruger has exactly the right temperament for the bench.

"She's kind of unflappably gracious, but also incredibly smart, just incisively smart and perceptive," Little told KQED. "To me, she's everything you might want in a judge."

As a state Supreme Court Justice, Kruger has held nuanced, sometimes cautious positions. When the court has been divided, she has often joined colleagues appointed by Democratic governors, but not always. Rory Little said Kruger does not look at cases through a political lens.

"That is not who Leondra is," Little said. "She is apolitical. I mean, I don't think anybody can find anything in her record where she comments on things politically."

Fatima Goss Graves, president and CEO of the National Women’s Law Center in Washington, also attended Yale with Kruger. She said having President Biden name a Black woman to the Supreme Court fills her with pride, whether it’s Kruger or someone else on the short list.

"And part of that pride comes from the fact that we have long known many people who would have been well qualified and would have made the Supreme Court better, but who were never considered," Graves said.

There have already been misplaced criticisms from conservatives, who say that because Biden has committed to naming a Black woman that he’s somehow picking someone less qualified — a ridiculous notion given the credentials of the women he’s considering.

But Professor Little said no matter what they throw at her, Kruger will be ready.

"She's not going to lose her cool during a Senate confirmation hearing and sort of lash out at the people on the panel. She's not that kind of person, no matter what they say," Little predicted.

If Biden chooses her and she is confirmed, Kruger would be the youngest justice on the court at age 45. She would also join a short list of Supreme Court justices who came from state courts — a list that includes Arizona’s Sandra Day O’Connor and David Souter of New Hampshire.