Within hours Californians saw the swearing in of a new governor, Jerry Brown, and the resignation of a California Supreme Court Justice, Carlos Moreno. Moreno has been a fixture of the California judicial scene for quite some time. He first assumed the bench in 1986, when he served as a municipal court judge in Compton. President Bill Clinton appointed him to the federal district court, and later, in 2001, Governor Gray Davis appointed him to the California Supreme Court. President Barack Obama considered Moreno to fill U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter's vacancy on the nation's highest court, but ultimately chose Justice Sonia Sotomayor instead.
Justice Moreno is unique on the California Supreme Court. He is the court's only Latino member and only Democratic appointee.
The vacancy will allow Brown to make his mark, yet again, on the California Supreme Court. When most people think of Jerry Brown and the California Supreme Court, they think of the Rose Bird debacle of 1986. In that year California voters ousted three of Brown's appointments to the court, including Chief Justice Rose Bird, over their pattern of overturning death penalty convictions.
Making a statement that gives absolutely no indication as to who he will appoint, Brown's spokesperson said Brown "intends to fill Justice Moreno's seat with a candidate who is equally knowledgeable, thoughtful and judicious." This is, at best, a generic description that any governor could use to describe qualities s/he wants for in a future nominee.
The specter of Rose Bird could loom large over Brown's next judicial appointment. It remains to be seen whether the historic dismissal of his past appointees will make him gun shy. It is clear, however, that Moreno wanted Brown, rather than Schwarzenegger, to pick his replacement. Brown's oath of office was still echoing in our minds as Moreno alerted the governor of his resignation.
If Brown appoints someone who is a moderate it could actually move the seven-member court to the right, as Moreno is unquestionable among the liberal wing of the court. Moreno was the sole dissenter in the recent case finding Prop 8, the ballot measure defining marriage as between a man and a woman, to be unconstitutional. (The Ninth Circuit recently kicked a procedural question concerning Prop 8 back to the California Supreme Court. Click here for more).
Stay tuned to see what role the fear of history repeating plays on Brown's appointment.