There is no doubt about the intelligence and diligence of Leondra Kruger, 38, Gov. Jerry Brown’s new appointee to the California Supreme Court.
But this graduate of the elite, private Polytechnic School adjacent to the Caltech campus in Pasadena has not spent substantial time in California since 2000, and very little in the six years before that. Essentially, Kruger left California to attend Harvard University and Yale Law School, returning only for short stays, including summer interships in the U.S. attorney’s office in Los Angeles in 1999 and with a large Los Angeles law firm the next year.
That raises a question Brown ignored in his first-go-‘round as governor in the 1970s, when he loudly proclaimed he was scouring the nation for “the best and brightest” to populate his administration.
There is little doubt Kruger fits that category today, at least in theory. She clerked for a U.S. Supreme Court justice, John Paul Stevens, a plum job for any recent law school graduate. She has been a top lawyer in the federal Justice Department and argued substantial cases before the nation’s top court while a deputy solicitor general.
But she has no experience as an adult in California. In that way, she’s reminiscent of Adriana Gianturco, perhaps the least successful of Brown’s first-term appointees. Gianturco, a graduate of Smith College, UC Berkeley and Harvard Graduate School, was brought in from Massachusetts to freshen up Caltrans.
One of her first fiascos was making the two center lanes of the I-10 Santa Monica Freeway, then the world’s busiest highway, into carpool-only lanes. So infuriated were Los Angeles commuters, whose existing gridlock suddenly became much worse, that Gianturco became known on radio talk shows as the “Giant Turkey,” “the madwoman of Caltrans” and “Our Lady of the Diamond Lane.” She was, she once said, “besieged, vilified, crucified.”
Because she also had not bothered to develop rapport with either local officials or state legislators, her project and her tenure as Caltrans director were doomed to flop. There still are no carpool lanes on that freeway, and all carpool lanes established elsewhere since then have been added on, not taken from existing traffic lanes.
All this because Gianturco didn’t understand California and Californians.
Similar pitfalls could await Kruger, who is all but certain to be confirmed by the state Commission on Judicial Appointments, consisting of state Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, Attorney General Kamala Harris and Joan Dempsey Klein, senior presiding judge of the state Court of Appeal.
“She reminds me more of Rose Bird than Gianturco,” says Robert Stern, longtime president of the former Los Angeles-based Center for Government Studies. Bird, appointed California chief justice at 40, just two years older than Kruger is now, also had no judicial experience, but had been a California lawyer, working as a public defender and teaching at Stanford Law School.
Like Gianturco, she did not understand some California sentiments, and thus was voted out by a 2-1 margin in her first confirmation election in 1986. Bird never approved an appealed death sentence in her entire court tenure. She also authored several regulatory-related decisions that infuriated the state’s business lobby.
“They put up the money to oust her, with the governor at the time, (Republican) George Deukmejian, campaigning hard on that, too,” recalled Stern. “They used the death penalty to get at her, but were actually more interested in her business decisions.”
So it will behoove Kruger to familiarize herself quickly with California politics and attitudes. She will fail to do so at her own peril.
Her supporters don’t seem concerned about that. “She is super-smart, crazy well-prepared and the type of person who only cared about getting it right, not about getting in good with the boss,” said her ex-boss, former acting Solicitor General Neal Katyal, who moved her into that office’s No. 2 slot.
Katyal, now a Georgetown University law professor, told a reporter watching Kruger work was “like watching a master.”
Given her lack of any California background as an adult, Kruger will need to be masterful to become widely accepted. If she’s as good as her old colleagues say, she’ll do the necessary homework, become a full-fledged Californian and be just fine.