Justice Carlos R. Moreno of the California Supreme Court, shown Tuesday in San Francisco, is admired on the left and the right.
May 20, 2009
Californian Would Add Wide Experience to Court
By JOHN SCHWARTZ
Carlos R. Moreno is a long-shot candidate to fill Justice David H. Souter’s spot on the United States Supreme Court. He is the only man on most short lists when many people believe President Obama will appoint a woman; he is also, at 60, a bit old by the standards of recent appointees.
But Justice Moreno, the only Hispanic member of the California Supreme Court and its sole Democrat, is accustomed to beating expectations. He propelled himself from the working-class neighborhoods of Central Los Angeles to Yale University, which he attended on a full scholarship, and rose to become a justice on what is arguably the most important state court in the nation.
A moderate whose opinions deftly blend matters of the head and heart, he is admired on the political left and right — part of the reason Kenneth W. Starr, the former independent counsel who investigated President Bill Clinton and is now the dean of Pepperdine University School of Law, said “he is genuinely revered here in California.”
On a United States Supreme Court alongside eight justices who are all former appeals court judges with relatively similar backgrounds, Justice Moreno would provide a wider breadth of experience in both civil and criminal matters. He has been a state judge, unlike the remaining justices, and has also worked in the local and federal systems and as a private lawyer. His supporters say he brings more than enough of the empathy President Obama has said he is seeking.
Miriam Krinsky, a prominent advocate for foster care in California, said that she would normally want to see a woman fill the vacancy, but that Justice Moreno “fully understands and has empathy for minorities and women and others who have had to break through glass ceilings.”
His opinions are measured in tone but show an eye for telling detail. A 2005 case involved a dispute over child support after the breakup of a lesbian couple. In reversing a lower-court decision that denied child support, Justice Moreno described the complex interplay of laws defining parenthood and signs of intent to form a lifelong commitment, but cut through the technicalities with a mention that “Elisa obtained a tattoo that read ‘Emily, por vida,’ which in Spanish means ‘Emily, for life.’ ”
As a member of the state’s Supreme Court, said Gerald F. Uelmen, a professor at Santa Clara University law school, Justice Moreno is “dead center on a moderate to conservative court,” with a dissent rate of about 6 percent. He is not opposed to the death penalty; he has heard some 140 death penalty appeals and voted to uphold the sentence in 90 percent of them.
Justice Moreno sided with the court’s majority in last year’s decision allowing same-sex marriage. After that decision was countered by a public initiative, Proposition 8, he was the sole member of the court who voted last year to block the enforcement of the initiative while the court was considering its constitutionality.
In 2002, he upheld the right of counties and cities to ban gun shows at county properties like fairgrounds. On Monday, in an important tort case, he wrote the majority opinion in a 4-to-3 decision that preserved the right of consumers to bring class-action lawsuits against corporations. He has written no major opinions on abortion.
His admirers cite a profound intelligence, surprising humility and subtle humor. In the hearing this year on Proposition 8, Mr. Starr argued that the measure should also nullify the unions of some 18,000 existing couples. In asking Mr. Starr a question about his position, Justice Moreno made a Clinton-era joke about the “meaning of the word ‘is’ ” that drew the admiration of even the former prosecutor.
Justice Moreno’s life story might make him particularly attractive to the White House, said Niki Solis, president of the San Francisco La Raza Lawyers Association and a lawyer in the city’s public defender’s office. “He has an Ivy League intellect with that blue-collar Latino background,” she said.
His parents were Mexican immigrants who never married, and who separated when he was young. An uncle took in the mother and her five children. In an interview, the justice recalled that it was not an easy time, though “there was always food on the table.”
At Lincoln High School, an English teacher pushed him and other promising students to read widely, write clearly and plunge into the arts. “I saw ‘Tosca,’ ‘Aida’ and ‘La Traviata’ as a high school student,” Justice Moreno said.
After Yale and Stanford Law School, he began a varied career in the law: he worked as a prosecutor in the city attorney’s office and a lawyer at a large firm before moving on to judgeships in Municipal Court, Los Angeles County Superior Court and Federal District Court before his appointment to the California Supreme Court by Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat, in 2001.
Justice Moreno has stayed close to his roots; law clerks tell of his wanderings in Los Angeles’s Mexican neighborhoods for “typically divey and incredibly delicious” lunches, said one, Daniel M. Krainin. “Along with the intellectual challenges, the lunches were great,” Mr. Krainin said.
Admirers like Ms. Krinsky said Justice Moreno’s character was most clearly revealed in an arduous act of family loyalty: taking in a disabled niece, Heather, from foster care. Justice Moreno and his wife, Christine, who have two grown children, took the girl into their home in 2000. At the time, she was 5 years old and could not talk or even chew food.
For all of his life’s challenges, Justice Moreno said that taking care of his niece was the hardest thing he and his wife had ever had to do. Without the intervention, “she would have starved to death,” he said. Heather, now 13, is healthy and living in a Los Angeles group home. When asked why they took her in, Justice Moreno said, “my uncle stepped in to help raise two girls and three boys.”
Justice Moreno now heads a statewide commission on foster care, and speaks frankly of his experiences. In a 2004 address to graduates of the Thomas Jefferson School of Law, he described the difficulties he and his wife encountered in getting medical and educational services for Heather despite his education and stature. He asked his audience to consider how much harder getting those services must be for those less fortunate, and urged them to ensure that the nation’s “marvelous Constitution and laws” are open to all.
“For just as simply as having the best health care system does not ensure access,” he said, “having the best legal system does not ensure justice.”
Kitty Bennett contributed research.