By Nigel Duara. CalMatters.
In a state that does not have many Latinas sitting on the bench or arguing cases before it, Patricia Guerrero would make history as Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court.
Gov. Gavin Newsom on Wednesday nominated Guerrero, 50, as chief justice of the California Supreme Court. Guerrero, already the high court's first Latina after her swearing-in in March, would also be the court's first Latina chief justice.
Guerrero, a former attorney in private practice, was also a federal prosecutor before becoming a judge in San Diego County Superior Court and, in 2017, became an appellate judge on California's Fourth District Court of Appeal. She grew up in the Imperial Valley, her parents were immigrants from Mexico and graduated from Stanford Law School.
Newsom called her "a highly respected jurist with a formidable intellect and command of the law." A colleague at her 2017 Fourth District confirmation hearing recalled how she finished a brief on her way to give birth to her child and coordinated the filing of the brief hours later.
Juan Esparza Loera, publisher of the Spanish-language newspaper Vida in the Fresno Valley, said he was surprised by Guerrero's nomination for chief justice so soon after she was sworn in. But he is happy to be able to write about another "first in history."
"I've been here 32 years and I'm surprised that even in the year 2022, I'm still writing about firsts for Latinos," Loera said. "I'll be happy when I start writing about seconds and thirds."
The numbers in 2022 remain bleak for Latinos overall in California's judiciary. More than 62 percent of all trial court judges are white, as are more than 70 percent of appellate court judges.
Latinos, by contrast, represent only 12 percent of trial court judges and 7 percent of appellate court judges, although they make up 39 percent of the state.
This is not a new problem. A CalMatters series last year found significant underrepresentation in many county courts, and in four California counties with no Latino superior court judges, despite the counties' majority Latino populations.
Race alone, of course, does not dictate how someone will fail cases. The results of studies attempting to decipher the link between race or ethnicity and judicial behavior have been mixed.
A Yale study found that having judges of African descent made white judges more adherent to sentencing fairness for both African- and white defendants. Researchers at Cornell Law School found that judges, like everyone else, have implicit biases that can affect their rulings.
And in a 2012 comparative study of white judges and judges of color, a Northwestern University law professor found that white judges were particularly more likely to dismiss cases involving plaintiffs of color than those involving white plaintiffs.
But how individual judges rule in specific cases matters less than the perception of fairness, said Helen Torres, executive director of Hispanas Organized for Political Equality.
A 2016 study in Texas on Latino attitudes toward justice after Sonia Sotomayor's appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court found that Latinos were more aware and approving of the court after her appointment.
"They had more confidence in the judiciary," Torres stressed. "It generates confidence in the system that represents you."
In trying to read the tea leaves about the next chief justice, handicappers look at the history of elevating sitting justices versus electing someone completely new.
Newsom apparently split the difference, nominating an acting judge who was just elevated to the Supreme Court in March.
David A. Carrillo, executive director of Berkeley Law's California Constitution Center, referenced in an email that court diversification first became a priority under former Gov. Jerry Brown in the 1970s.
"Doing so is crucial to both the perception and the reality that those who administer justice reflect the diversity of the state," Carrillo wrote. "The judge in my case does not have to look like me, but it should not be true that there are no judges who look like me."
Guerrero garnered immediate public support from state Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Tom Umberg and Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon.
Guerrero would take on both judicial and administrative work, said Natasha Minsker, a policy adviser for Smart Justice California, which advocates for policies she hopes will decrease reliance on incarceration. She would effectively be the head of the third branch of government, and her decisions would have far-reaching consequences.
Minsker pointed to Tani Cantil-Sakauye, the acting chief justice, who last month announced her plan to retire in January. Cantil-Sakauye was responsible for court orders that closed courtrooms during the start of the pandemic and instituted zero-dollar bail for some misdemeanors.
"He had a particular awareness of how difficult the legal system is for people without resources," Minsker specified. "Rich people have fancy lawyers and get justice. Cantil-Sakauye tried to do something to address that."
Loera, the editor of Vida en el Valle, recalled that one of the first Latino judges in the Central Valley, Armando Rodriguez, returned from World War II and earned a law degree, but found that no one in Fresno would rent office space for him. He had to look more than 20 miles away in Madera.
"When any segment of the community feels they are being ignored, they don't have confidence in the system," Loera said. "Maybe the courts are ruling correctly 99 percent of the time, but it's that perception that affects how people view the system."
Feeling part of the system requires the system to look like you, Torres explained.
"We don't want to stay with the first of, of anything," Torres expressed. "Many of our women are the first of: the first on a city council, the first on a regulatory board, the first president of the Supreme Court."
"We want to celebrate these developments, but make sure they are not the last."
Newsom also nominated Alameda County Superior Court Judge Kelli Evans to be an associate justice on the Supreme Court to fill the expected vacancy created by Guerrero's promotion to chief justice.
Evans, 53, of Oakland, was raised by her grandmother in public housing and later attended Stanford and graduated from UC Davis School of Law. A former civil rights attorney and civil division attorney at the U.S. Department of Justice, she also served as a special assistant attorney general at the California Department of Justice from 2017 to 2019.
She then became Newsom's principal deputy undersecretary for legal affairs. Among her influences there, according to the governor's office: helping shape Newsom's moratorium on capital punishment.
Minsker, of Smart Justice California, called Evans' nomination "a big deal."
"She may be the only future Supreme Court justice who has direct experience working on police use of force cases," Minsker said. "We need a California Supreme Court to counter what is happening in the U.S. Supreme Court if we really want to protect our rights."
Both nominees must be confirmed by the Judicial Nominating Commission, and California voters will be asked in November to confirm Guerrero to a 12-year term.
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