California's Leondra Kruger emerges as contender for U.S. Supreme Court

·4 min read
David Butow  For The Times JUSTICE
Leondra Kruger, the daughter of two pediatricians, attended high school in Pasadena and went on to graduate with honors from Harvard College before earning her law degree from Yale University. (David Butow / For The Times)

Los Angeles County native and California Supreme Court Justice Leondra Kruger's résumé spans the nation's top universities, elite law firms and the federal Department of Justice.

And Kruger, 45, could soon add the U.S. Supreme Court to the list, should President Biden select her as the first Black woman to serve on the bench after Justice Stephen G. Breyer's retirement.

Those familiar with Kruger's legal accomplishments said she would be a valuable addition to the court while also helping Biden fulfill a campaign promise to make a historic appointment to the bench.

"Justice Kruger has absolutely impeccable credentials," said Amanda L. Tyler, a professor at UC Berkeley School of Law.

The daughter of two pediatricians, Kruger attended high school in Pasadena and went on to graduate with honors from Harvard College before earning her law degree from Yale University, where she was the first Black woman to serve as editor in chief of the Yale Law Journal.

She clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens and served in the Office of Solicitor General. While in that office during the Obama administration, she argued a dozen cases on behalf of the federal government. She also worked in the U.S. Department of Justice and was a visiting assistant professor at the University of Chicago Law School.

In 2014, when she was just 38, then-California Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, nominated Kruger to the state Supreme Court, where she has served since January 2015. In his announcement of her nomination, Brown called Kruger a "distinguished lawyer and uncommon student of the law."

“She has won the respect of eminent jurists, scholars and practitioners alike," Brown said.

During her tenure on California's high court, Kruger has garnered a reputation as a prudent, meticulous judge who evaluates each side of an argument before rendering a decision. While she "obviously leans toward what a Democratic appointee would lean toward," Kruger has also sided with Republican appointees on the court, said Leslie Gielow Jacobs, a professor at the University of the Pacific McGeorge School of Law.

"She has established herself as careful and cognizant of the judicial role," Gielow Jacobs said. "It's understanding that the law moves slowly, and it moves by precedent and it moves by a majority of the justices agreeing, if they may have their own personalities and points of view."

During a 2018 interview with The Times, Kruger said her judicial style "reflects the fact that we operate in a system of precedent."

“I aim to perform my job in a way that enhances the predictability and stability of the law, and public confidence and trust in the work of the courts," she said.

Any Biden nominee to replace Breyer, 83, who was appointed to the court by President Clinton in 1994, wouldn't tip the court's ideological composition — six Republican-appointed justices outnumber the three jurists nominated by Democrats.

Along with contributing her legal credentials, Tyler said, Kruger would help ensure the institution is more reflective of America's diversity.

"If she is nominated and confirmed, we would have a more diverse Supreme Court than we've had in the past, and that's significant," Tyler said.

She could also become the youngest justice on the court, and the second Californian to serve on both the state's and nation's highest courts, according to the California State Library.

Kruger isn't the only name rumored as a top contender for the bench. Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit is also expected to be heavily considered by the Biden administration for the role.

Jackson, 51, clerked for Breyer two decades ago, and before assuming her current post she endured the rigorous Senate review and confirmation process last year. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has warned against Biden picking a justice who is overly liberal. Having already gone through the vetting process with bipartisan approval could help make Jackson the easier choice, Gielow Jacobs said.

"But Kruger I view as coming up, nipping at the heels and possibly overtaking Jackson," she said.

Tyler said it was exciting to see both women as possible candidates, and that Jackson was "exceptional in her own right" because of her "outstanding" experience as a judge.

"She is so careful, and talks through every single argument," Tyler said.

Biden hasn't indicated whom he will appoint but said that the selection process will be "rigorous" and that he plans to make a decision by the end of February. J. Michelle Childs, a federal district judge in South Carolina, and Sherrilyn Ifill, the outgoing president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, are among the other names that have been discussed as potential nominees.

Breyer will finish his more than two-decade career on the court by the end of its term, in either late June or early July.

For the record:
1:25 p.m. Jan. 31, 2022: An earlier version of this article included a quote from UC Berkeley Law professor Amanda L. Tyler that said Kruger is “the leading candidate” to replace Breyer. Tyler says she believes that others, including Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, are also leading candidates for the job.

The story also said that Kruger was an assistant professor at the University of Chicago Law School. She was a visiting assistant professor.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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