It’s time for a Latina to share her life story, legal background, and personal journey in making important decisions in California.
By Paul Barragan-Monge, Special at CalMatters
Paul Barragan-Monge is the director of mobilization for the UCLA Latino Policy and Politics Initiative, a Latino-focused think tank.
Gov. Gavin Newsom has a record of historic gubernatorial appointments: the first black secretary of state, the first Latin American senator and the ffirst attorney general of Filipino origin. Newsom has another chance to make history by filling the post left vacant by the departure of Judge Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar from the California Supreme Court with a Latina, which would be a necessary and long overdue first.
While Cuéllar is a Mexican American immigrant who has reached the highest levels of the state’s justice system, Latinos have historically been significantly under-represented in the justice system. Latinos make up only about 10% of judges in the state’s court of appeals system, while making up almost 40% of the state’s population. The lack of representation is even worse for Latinas: they represent only four of the current 97 appellate judges, and three of the six state appellate courts do not have Latinas.
If the position is not filled by a Latino, the state’s highest court will have no representation of California’s pluralistic population. It’s time for Newsom to take it one step further and make sure the spot is filled with a Latina.
When it comes to Latino and gender representation within its highest jurisdiction, California lags behind other states with large Latin American populations. For example, Texas has a Latina seated at its Supreme Court, while Florida has two Latinos seated. New Jersey is currently tied with California for a Latino Supreme Court judge, but that will change when Cuéllar leaves the bench. In order for the California Supreme Court to reflect the population it serves, at least two of its appointees would have to be Latin American.
Representation issues for judicial appointments. The state’s court systems are an important pipeline for high-level jobs in the court system, as evidenced by U.S. Supreme Court Judge Sonia Sotomayor, who was shortlisted for the post by the 2nd Court call from the United States. In Latino legal circles, the recent appointment of a defender of the right to vote Myrna Pérez at 2sd Circuit was greeted with celebration. For there to be future appointments that give Latinos the proportional representation they deserve at the federal level, there needs to be a greater presence in state justice systems.
There is no shortage of legal talent here in California who can rise to the occasion. The UCLA Latino Political and Political Initiative, where I work, recently joined a group of Latino leaders and legal experts to advocate for a Latin American appointment and recommend qualified Latin American lawyers statewide, including experts in housing, immigration, work, franchise, and community development, all of which are critical perspectives for someone making critical statewide legal decisions that affect all Californians.
Just as it is important for citizens to see themselves reflected by their politicians or for students to have teachers who understand their cultural perspectives, trust in the justice system is also enhanced by greater diversity and representation.
The future California Supreme Court judge will work on issues such as workers ‘rights in emerging industries, protecting tenants from widespread evictions, and local governments’ ongoing public health responses to the COVID-19 pandemic . It’s time for a Latina to bring her life story, legal background, and personal journey to these important decisions.
Latinos – and Latinas in particular – have proven to be critical economic and cultural contributors to California, especially during a pandemic where the community has suffered a disproportionate share of the financial and public health fallout. Newsom has a chance to make history and give a Latina her rightful place on the California Supreme Court, making the court system stronger and fairer.