California Supreme Court Justice: Who Is Leondra R. Kruger?

Tuesday, November 25, 2014
Leondra R. Kruger

Governor Jerry Brown went outside the judiciary and cross-country to tap a young U.S. deputy assistant attorney general for a spot on the seven-member California Supreme Court Monday.  

Leondra Reid Kruger, 38, would be the only African-American on the court and the youngest justice ever if confirmed by a three-member state commission: Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, Attorney General Kamala Harris and senior appeals court Justice Joan Dempsey Klein. She will replace Associate Justice Joyce L. Kennard, who retired in April. The nomination will first be submitted to the State Bar’s Commission on Judicial Nominees Evaluation.

Santa Clara University law professor and high court expert Gerald Uelmen told the Los Angeles Times the selection of Kruger was a “mind blower.” He called Kruger a “superstar,” but noted she had not practiced law in California and been away from the state for a couple of decades. She became a member of the State Bar of California in 2002, but the Pasadena Star-News said she was deactivated in 2009.

The South Pasadena native attended Polytechnic School, a private K-12 college preparatory school in Pasadena. Kruger received a bachelor of arts degree in 1997 from Harvard University, where she wrote at least 61 articles for the Harvard Crimson on a broad range of subjects, including, Native American gaming, politics and a spirited defense of her hometown in the face of Easterners who like nothing better “than to point their fingers at Southern California and laugh.”

In 1999, she interned at the U.S. Attorney’s Office Central District of California and was a summer associate in the law offices of Munger, Tolles & Olson in 2000.

She received a Juris Doctor degree from Yale University in 2001 (pdf).

Kruger was an associate at Jenner and Block LLP from 2001 to 2002. She clerked for Justice David S. Tatel on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit from 2002 to 2003.

Kruger was a clerk for U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens in 2003-04. She was an associate at Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr in Washington, D.C., from 2004 to 2006 and a visiting assistant professor at the University of Chicago Law School in 2007.

Kruger went to work for the Office of the Solicitor General in the U.S. Department of Justice in 2007 where she argued 12 cases before the high court. She was assistant to the solicitor general before becoming acting principal deputy solicitor general in 2010. The Blog of LegalTimes called her promotion to the “so-called ‘political deputy’ position” a “surprise.”

Around that time, Ashby Jones blogged at the Wall Street Journal of Kruger: “It’s a name in the world of law that you’re likely going to be hearing for years to come.”

Among the cases Kruger argued was one that earned her the undying enmity of religious conservatives. She argued on behalf of the federal government in a losing effort (pdf) to convince the Supreme Court not to expand the “ministerial exception” that religious institutions can use to thwart federal workplace discrimination laws.

An appellate court had ruled that a Lutheran Church could fire Cheryl Perich after finding out she suffered from narcolepsy. She was technically designated a “minister by the church” but the court decided her duties were essentially the same as a lay teacher and said federal discrimination laws applied.

The Supreme Court unanimously overruled that decision and for the first time articulated that the legal principal could be applied beyond an actual minister, or the equivalent, to include a teacher of mostly nonreligious subjects at a church-run school without having to balance competing First Amendment interests.

Kruger worked in solicitor general’s office until 2013, when she was promoted to deputy assistant attorney general in the Office of Legal Counsel.

She is Brown’s third Supreme Court selection. The first two were professors and none of the three have been jurists. Women will continue to be a 4-3 majority on the court.

Kruger is married with a young son.

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

Kruger Picked for California Supreme Court (by Maria Dinzeo, Courthouse News Service)

Assistant U.S. Attorney Named to California Supreme Court (by Zen Vuong, Pasadena Star-News)

Governor Names Top Obama Administration Lawyer to California Supreme Court (by Howard Mintz, San Jose Mercury News)

African-American Prosecutor Named to California Supreme Court (by Dan Levine, Reuters)

Brown to Nominate African American Woman to California Supreme Court (by Maura Dolan, Los Angeles Times)

Brown Nominates Assistant U.S. Attorney to State High Court (Associated Press)

Liberal California Has Rare Chance to Adjust Its Republican-Appointed Supreme Court (by Ken Broder,  AllGov California)

Governor Brown Selects Leondra R. Kruger for California Supreme Court (Office of the Governor)

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