Meeting a California Supreme Court Justice is like meeting a walking piece of history.
Justice Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar, with only a few weeks serving on the Court, has already made history by being the first Mexican-born judge appointed to the highest bench in California. I, along with members of the La Raza Law Students Association and other UC Hastings students, had the unique opportunity to meet and talk with this remarkable man. Here are four things I learned from the Q&A Event with Justice Tino Cuéllar, moderated by our La Raza faculty advisor and a longtime friend of the Justice, Professor Leo Martinez.
4. Justice Cuéllar was a real life “West Wing” character.
We all love the West Wing with its soaring rhetoric and harried policy experts advising a brilliant president. Justice Cuéllar used to be one of those experts in real life. Justice Cuéllar recalled his time in the White House in the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake in 2010. Cuéllar proposed what he thought was a sensible change in immigration policy. He knew many in the administration would think of his proposal as ludicrous, or radical, but he proposed it anyway. The committee members reacted the way he had anticipated, yet the more they thought of his idea, and with his calm persistence, the committee went around to adopt it. Justice Cuéllar framed his professional life as a series of calculated risks, and he encouraged law students, young lawyers, and even older lawyers to take calculated risks in regard to their careers. This was the perhaps the biggest theme Justice Cuéllar expounded on during the Q&A discussion. “Don’t be afraid to be bold, but also anticipate the things you will give up, the resistance you will encounter, and the consequences of your decision,” he said.
3. The more authority you possess, the less free your speech is.
According to Justice Cuéllar, lawyers and engineers both build things. Engineers build with numbers, drawings and technology, lawyers build by reading, writing and talking. In criminal law, prosecutors ‘build’ a case against someone, and judges do in fact, set up canons of law, some which stand the test of time. So it is only natural that when you are in a position of authority, your words, whether written or spoken, carry a lot more weight and building power. As such, you are restricted by the power of your own words. With the advent of social media which amplifies and allows constant communication, speech has never been freer. However, politicians, judges, and even lawyers must constantly watch what words they use.
2. Jerry Brown conducts awesome job interviews.
What does a job interview for the most powerful court in California look like? It is a long, roller coaster conversation with a quizzical governor. Justice Cuéllar described his interview with Governor Brown as a marathon. As soon as you think it is over, he just keeps going, said Cuéllar. They talked about law, technology, and the future. It seemed like the governor was trying very hard to get to know the person he had appointed, not asking him about decisions but about Cuéllar’s approach to the world. The appointment of judges is no small task after all. While the executive only has a set amount of time to serve, judges are appointed for life. The people Brown appoints become his legacy. So why not interview them for hours on end?
1.Fancy job titles don’t matter to eight-year-olds.
Finally, even when you are a sitting justice, your eight-year-old will still be embarrassed when you hug him in front of his friends. Justice Cuéllar opened up about how he and his wife, who is also a sitting judge, manage to balance two demanding jobs and a family. He said that even though he has never been a judge, he knows and respects the burdens of the job. I walked away from Justice Cuéllar’s visit inspired. Toward the middle of Cuéllar’s talk, a former Justice of the California Supreme court came in and sat in the audience. At the end of the event while everyone was clapping, the retired Justice turned to his former clerk and said “He’s terrific, just terrific.” I couldn’t agree more.