Gov. Newsom nominates Justice Patricia Guerrero as California’s next chief justice

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Gov. Gavin Newsom on Wednesday nominated Justice Patricia Guerrero to be the next chief justice of the California Supreme Court, elevating a Latina to California’s top judicial post for the first time.

Newsom, a Democrat, also nominated Alameda County Superior Court Judge Kelli Evans to fill the associate justice spot that would be vacated by Guerrero. Evans, who is Black, would be the first openly lesbian woman on the high court.

The nominations follow current Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye’s announcement two weeks ago that she would not seek a second term when her current term ends in January.

If confirmed, the two nominations would cement Newsom’s influence on the court and state for years. Guerrero, 50, is a moderate who falls slightly to the center-left ideologically, according to legal experts, while Evans, 53, falls more solidly to the left.

Justices are appointed to 12-year terms but can be reappointed.

“This is two-sevenths of the California Supreme Court, and these are people who are going to be there for a long time,” said Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the UC Berkeley School of Law. “They are historic and important appointments.”

Newsom appointed Guerrero to the court as an associate justice in February, and she was confirmed — as the first Latina to sit on the court — in March. As chief, Guerrero would continue hearing cases alongside the court’s six associate justices. She also would serve as the administrative leader of the high court and as chair of the Judicial Council of California, which sets administrative policy for all state courts.

In a statement, Newsom said Guerrero “has established herself as a widely respected jurist with a formidable intellect and command of the law and deep commitment to equal justice and public service.”

He said the Imperial Valley native “broke barriers as California’s first Latina Supreme Court justice, enriching our state’s highest court with her insights and deep understanding of the real-world impacts of the court’s decisions in the lives of everyday Californians.” He said he was “confident that the people of California will continue to be well-served by her leadership for years to come.”

Guerrero, in her own statement, said she was “humbled” by the nomination.

“If confirmed, I look forward to continuing the strides the court has made under Chief Justice Cantil-Sakauye to expand equal access to justice and create a fairer justice system for all Californians,” Guerrero said.

David A. Carrillo, executive director of Berkeley Law’s California Constitution Center, said he and colleagues of his had predicted Newsom would elevate a sitting justice — and that Guerrero, as one of his own appointments to the bench, made sense because “governors like to advance their own choices rather than a previous governor’s.”

Guerrero’s appointment also made sense politically, he said, as appointing the first Latina chief justice “speaks directly to the nearly 40% of the California population with Hispanic ancestry.”

Guerrero, who was raised by Mexican immigrant parents, previously served on California’s 4th District Court of Appeal overseeing cases in San Diego and the Imperial Valley. She attended UC Berkeley and Stanford Law School, and served as a federal prosecutor and a Superior Court judge in San Diego. She now lives in Coronado.

Newsom, who often touts the benefits of California’s diversity, has been keen on appointing “firsts” to the high court. In 2020, Newsom appointed the first openly gay justice in Martin Jenkins, a moderate Black former prosecutor and judge.

Given Jenkins’ post, Evans is not the first LGBTQ justice or the first LGBTQ justice of color. But she is the first openly LGBTQ woman on the high court.

In announcing her selection, Newsom said Evans “has dedicated herself to helping all Californians have an equal chance at justice.”

“I have seen firsthand her commitment to the highest ideals of public service, and her passion to protect and advance civil rights and liberties for all Californians,” Newsom said. “I have no doubt that her exemplary talent, wide-ranging knowledge and experience, strong moral compass, and work ethic will make her an outstanding Supreme Court justice.”

Evans, who lives in Oakland, was also appointed by Newsom to the Alameda County court. She previously served as Newsom’s chief deputy legal affairs secretary and worked stints at the California Department of Justice and in the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Justice Department. She was also an assistant public defender in Sacramento.

She worked as associate director of the ACLU of Northern California from 2010 to 2013, and has served on federal teams monitoring police departments in Oakland and Cleveland. She went to the UC Davis School of Law.

Newsom’s office said Wednesday that Evans has “broad experience throughout the nonprofit, private, and public sectors and served as Gov. Newsom’s lead attorney on a wide range of law enforcement, public safety, and criminal justice and civil rights-related law, policy, and litigation issues.”

Evans, in a statement, said she was honored by her nomination to the high court.

“I have worked my entire career to promote equality and access to justice and to protect the rights of some of society’s most disenfranchised members,” she said. “If confirmed, I look forward to furthering our state’s work to ensure equal justice under the law for all Californians.”

Chemerinsky said Guerrero and Evans were “both very impressive” and “both impeccably qualified.”

“It’s not that these are individuals who have been judges for a long time, but they have great qualifications, and everything I have heard about them is that they are terrific,” he said.

Carrillo said he recently reviewed Guerrero’s record on the appellate court, and it revealed no particular agenda or ideology — and no concerns about her ability to handle her judicial responsibilities.

“She’s a moderate who should fit right in with the court’s existing consensus culture,” he said — referring to the huge number of cases the current court has decided unanimously.

To be seen is how well Guerrero will fair wearing her new administrative hat, he said.

“Running the third branch of California’s government would be a daunting task for anyone, and stepping into that role with just a few months to prepare will be a challenge,” Carrillo said. “The good news is that Chief Justice Cantil-Sakauye has things running smoothly now, so Justice Guerrero isn’t walking into a house on fire.”

Cantil-Sakauye, the first person of color and the second woman to serve as chief, has said she told Newsom she would help ensure a “smooth transition.”

Newsom’s nominations will be submitted to the State Bar’s Commission on Judicial Nominees Evaluation, and must be confirmed by the Commission on Judicial Appointments.

Guerrero’s nomination as chief justice would also have to be confirmed by voters in November, the governor’s office noted.

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