As a kid in Matamoros, Mexico, a struggling border town on the Rio Grande river, Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar would wake up every morning and get on a bus. It would snake its way through the city's streets, ending up at the border wall separating Mexico from Brownsville, Texas. Cuéllar and his younger brother would cross the border on foot and go to their respective schools in Texas. Later that day, they’d make the same trip in reverse.
Now Cuéllar, 43, is a justice on California's state supreme court, where he's working to help immigrants like himself get access to justice. After the death of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia last week, Cuéllar’s name has popped up among the shortlist of potential nominees that President Obama might choose to replace him. He would be the first Mexican on the Court and the first immigrant in more than 50 years.
Cuéllar, who goes by “Tino,” moved with his family as a teenager from Matamoros to Calexico, in California’s central valley. He assembled a sterling academic resumé, gaining an undergraduate degree from Harvard (magna cum laude), a law degree from Yale, and a philosophy degree from Stanford. He also clerked for a federal appeals judge.
Later, Cuéllar served in the Clinton and Obama administrations and spent 15 years as a Stanford Law professor, writing about everything from the federal bureaucracy to immigration policy. He's known for his wide-ranging areas of expertise and his inquiring legal mind.
There are some big political upsides for President Obama in nominating a highly-qualified Mexican-American justice. If Republican Senators go through with their vow not to even give the president’s nominee a hearing, Obama and Democratic candidates could help fire up Latino voters with the prospect of Cuéllar’s blocked nomination. The Daily Beast called this scenario “the GOP’s worst nightmare.”
But Cuéllar might also have more of an edge because he knows Obama better than other potential nominees. He co-chaired the Obama transition team committee for immigration policy and refugees, and was later appointed a special advisor to the president on justice policy. As part of that effort, according to his Stanford biography page, he helped negotiate reforms in cocaine sentencing and worked on the repeal of the military’s Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy. Previously, Cuéllar worked in the Clinton administration’s treasury department.
After his stint at the White House, Cuéllar co-chaired a Congressional commission on closing the achievement gap in public schools, and helped produce a unanimous set of recommendations. He’s also been a presidential appointee on a national council overseeing federal administrative programs and a board member of the Constitution Project, a bipartisan group that educates people about the constitution.
California Gov. Jerry Brown appointed him to the state supreme court in 2014. As a justice, he’s chaired a panel on increasing access to courts among the about 7 million people in the state who don’t speak English—like him and his family were growing up. The state court system is facing a lack of interpreters and a dearth of funding. “Language access is access to justice, and access to justice is the core of our mission,” he told a California court system panel this month.
Unlike other judges, who often dissimulate their personal views, Cuéllar has a paper trail of academic papers he’s written that outline his own personal views on certain issues. In a 90-page treatise on what he described as the U.S.’s “largely dysfunctional” immigration system, he wrote that simply strengthening border enforcement “fails to address the core institutional problems of the status quo.”
Cuéllar would bring the experience of growing up on the border that is lacking among current justices. In an interview with the Stanford alumni magazine in 2013, Cuéllar remembered being stopped by immigration officials as a teenager. "It was a very common thing to be surrounded by law enforcement," he said. "By people who were simultaneously given the important role of protecting communities and protecting countries, but also could spark fear and concern in that community.”
Larry Kramer, a former colleague at Stanford, described Cuéllar’s focus as “technocratic” and “not particularly ideological,” with a broad variety of interests. “He’s what you would want in a judge,” Kramer said, noting that Cuéllar’s immigrant upbringing is a “set of unique experiences to bring to bear that he wears lightly but clearly have had a big affect on him.”
Cuéllar is part of a judicial power-couple, married to Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Lucy Koh. They have two kids.
In a TED talk in 2013, Cuéllar talked about his longtime fascination with borders. “Borders can be some of the most extraordinarily fascinating things to study and to try to understand, how they affect our world,” he said. “Borders are written down on the map, but they also exist in our mind.”
Casey Tolan is a National News Reporter for Fusion based in New York City.