We Explain L.A.
Stay Connected
Graphic of a person's hand placing a ballot in a ballot box decorated with the California state seal
(Dan Carino
/
LAist)
California Supreme Court
Unlike the U.S. Supreme Court, California’s highest court is more obscure and rarely issues polarizing opinions.
This story features Beeline Reader for enhanced readability. Click to turn the feature on or off. Learn more about this technology here.

It’s one of the most diverse, consequential — and unrecognizable — branches of California government.

Name one member of the California Supreme Court.

Thought so.

More Voter Guides

How to evaluate judges

Head to LAist's Voter Game Plan for guides to the rest of your ballot including:

Yet the names of four justices on California’s highest court are appearing on the November ballot, mixed in with more glossy, high-profile candidates.

In the past three decades, the court has gone from being a lightning rod of controversy to a steady, collegial body shaping California law. Today, the state’s highest court — unlike the U.S. Supreme Court — rarely renders opinions that polarize the public, making their appearance on the ballot an afterthought for many California voters.

“I suspect the average voter these days doesn’t think about the California Supreme Court, and they don’t need to,” said David A. Carrillo, executive director of Berkeley Law’s California Constitution Center.

It hasn’t always been that way. In the mid-1980s, outraged voters ousted Chief Justice Rose Bird over her persistent votes to overturn death penalty cases. Two other associate justices were also voted off the seven-member court.

“Since then,” said Carrillo, “the court has returned to its usual calm way of doing the people’s business.”

Qualifications

    • A legal career or at least a credential: Justices must be a member of the State Bar of California or a California judge for at least 10 years.
    • Political acumen: All justices are appointed or nominated by a governor and confirmed by the Commission on Judicial Appointments. While the job is nonpartisan, justices are often politically savvy. For example, Justices Joshua Groban and Martin Jenkins were appointed to the high court by their former bosses, then-Gov. Jerry Brown and Newsom, respectively.
    • A love for reading, writing and listening: The California Supreme Court reviews lower state court decisions, decides legal questions and maintains uniformity in the law. The seven justices also review all death penalty cases, which by law, are automatically appealed from the trial court to the Supreme Court.

About The Process

This November, Associate Justice Patricia Guerrero is asking voters to select her as chief justice. Associate Justices Joshua P. Groban, Martin L. Jenkins and Goodwin Liu also are on the ballot seeking to remain on the panel.

In California, appellate and Supreme Court justices are selected through a gubernatorial appointment, confirmation and voter approval process. Superior Court or local judges can either be appointed or directly elected to the bench by voters.

  • The Nov. 8 ballot will include the names of four Supreme Court justices. Retention elections are nonpartisan and there are no opponents. Voters just select “yes” or “no” beside each name.

  • Justices are selected through a three-step process. They’re appointed by the governor, confirmed by the Commission on Judicial Appointments, and retained or approved by voters for 12-year terms in the next gubernatorial election, which sometimes comes years after an appointed justice has been sworn in. Only confirmed nominees can become a justice.

  • Three appointed associate justices — Patricia Guerrero, Joshua Groban and Martin Jenkins — are on the ballot for the first time. Associate Justice Goodwin Liu is on the ballot because his 12-year elected term is up.

  • Guerrero was appointed to the high court in March 2022. Within months, she was nominated and unanimously confirmed as chief justice. Now, voters have to approve her before she can be sworn in January as the first Latina chief justice in California history. If voters reject her, Newsom would have to appoint a chief justice.

  • Rarely do voters decide against retaining a justice or approving a chief justice, but it has happened. In 1986, California voters — upset that the court was delaying capital punishment cases — voted not to grant Chief Justice Rose Bird and two other justices new 12-year terms.

Their Terms

Superior Court judges serve six-year terms. Appellate and Supreme Court justices are elected for 12-year terms.

If a majority of voters say “yes” on a justice, they get a 12-year term. If a majority say “no” on any of the justices, the governor must nominate a replacement. If confirmed by the Commission on Judicial Appointments, the justice would serve until their retention election.

While most cases are heard and decided at the local level, the Supreme Court answers tough legal questions facing Californians.

“By its very place in the judicial hierarchy, (the Supreme Court) is being asked to answer the hard questions or find solutions to the really hard issues,” said Beth Jay, former principal attorney to three chief justices between 1987 and 2015.

Why It's A Very 'In-Sync' Court

Under the leadership of retiring Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, who was nominated in 2010 by former Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the highest court has become increasingly more in sync.

Since 2011, 85% of the court’s decisions have been unanimous, according to data from the California Constitution Center. Before her tenure, 74% of the court’s cases were unanimous under former Chief Justice Ronald M. George from 1996 to 2011. George was appointed by Republican Gov. Pete Wilson.

Today’s justices are consistently siding with each other, even as the state Supreme Court has become the most diverse court in the country, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonprofit law and policy institute.

The current bench includes an Asian justice, one Asian-Filipina justice, two Black justices, one Latina justice and two white justices. Four of the seven are women.

In just a few years, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s Supreme Court appointments and nominations press releases have touted a series of firsts:

How The Court Operates

While some may think the court’s ability to agree begins and ends with who appointed them, Cantil-Sakauye says it has more to do with how the court operates. She attributes the court’s high unanimity rate to the justices’ way of preparing for cases before they hear oral arguments.

“That is key to how we are … collegial and … have an opportunity to write an opinion that most people can agree on,” she said.

Unlike the U.S. Supreme Court, Cantil-Sakauye said, she assigns cases to individual justices as soon as the court grants a review. The court doesn’t wait until after hearing oral arguments to begin evaluating the case. By the time litigants argue their case, she said, she “tentatively knows” the justices’ concerns.

“We have time to work with each other and explore others’ positions,” she said.

The justices, however, have not always agreed.

One 2018 opinion split the court, 4-3, along ideological lines. The highly-watched case centered around California’s requirement that DNA samples be collected during felony arrests. The majority, which included more conservative justices, let the law stand in a win for prosecutors.

The more left-leaning justices sided with civil libertarians, who contended the law violated the state’s privacy laws.

Even so, the news coverage and intense arguments in the DNA case paled against the furor that surrounded former Chief Justice Rose Bird and her court.

Bird, the first woman on the Supreme Court and the first female chief justice, was appointed by former Gov. Jerry Brown during his first stint as governor. Bird opposed the death penalty, which emboldened some political factions to lead a campaign against her retention.

By 1986, under Republican Gov. George Deukmejian, voters elected not to retain Bird and associate justices Joseph Grodin and Cruz Reynoso, who also had been appointed by Brown. The turnover created a pathway for Deukmejian to appoint three new justices to the court, suddenly remaking the state’s highest court.

“The institution picked itself up, dusted itself off, and kept doing the work,” said attorney Jay, who worked for the court at the time.

“The strength of institutions like the court, if it’s functioning properly, is that (the court) can continue to function even when it’s getting some pretty bad body blows.”


The following is from CalMatters voter guide:

Patricia Guerrero

Patricia Guererro, appointed by Gov. Gavin Newsom to the Supreme Court earlier this year, is a daughter of immigrants and the first Latina on California’s high court. Now, she’s asking voters to add the first Latina chief justice to her long list of accomplishments. A native of the Imperial Valley, Guerrero worked to help pay her way through the University of California, Berkeley and Stanford Law School. She was a federal prosecutor and a partner at Latham & Watkins LLP, before serving four years as a local court judge in San Diego County. In 2017, then-Gov. Jerry Brown appointed her to a state appeals court.

Guererro’s time on the bench is not marked with any sweeping opinions or rulings, according to a recent analysis by the San Diego Union-Tribune.

Experience:

  • Associate justice, California Supreme Court | March 2022-present
  • Associate justice, California Court of Appeal | 2017-2022
  • Judge, San Diego Superior Court | 2013–2017
  • Partner, Latham & Watkins LLP | 2006–2013
  • Latham & Watkins | 2003–2006, 1997–2002
  • Assistant U.S. attorney, Southern District of California |2002–2003

Joshua P. Groban

Joshua P. Groban was sworn onto the bench in early 2019, after being confirmed in December 2018. It was his first time working sitting on the other side of the bench. A native of San Diego and a product of San Diego public schools, Groban graduated from Stanford and Harvard Law. He worked at multiple law firms early in his career, where he specialized in civil litigation, focusing on antitrust, internal investigations and intellectual property. He later joined former Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration, advising the governor on more than 600 judicial appointments and on high-profile litigation and policy issues. Brown appointed Groban to the Supreme Court.

Experience

  • Associate justice, California Supreme Court | 2019–present
  • Senior advisor to Gov. Jerry Brown | 2011–2018
  • Lecturer, UCLA School of Law | 2014–2018
  • Attorney, Munger, Tolles & Olson LLP | 2005–2010
  • Attorney, Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP | 1999–2005
  • Law clerk to Judge William C. Conner, Southern District of New York | 1998–1999

Martin J. Jenkins

Martin J. Jenkins was appointed to the Supreme Court by Gov. Gavin Newsom in 2020. Jenkins is California’s first openly gay high court justice. Jenkins began his legal career as a local prosecutor and went on to work as a trial attorney for the U.S. Department of Justice and as a corporate attorney. He has been put on the bench by both Democrats and Republicans: President Bill Clinton made him a federal district judge, and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger appointed him to a state appeals court. A San Francisco native, Jenkins grew up cleaning office buildings and churches with his father. Jenkins graduated from Santa Clara University and the University of San Francisco Law School.

Experience

  • Associate justice, California Supreme Court | 2020–present
  • Associate justice, California Court of Appeal | 2008–2019
  • Judge, U.S. District Court, Northern District of California | 1997–2008
  • Judge, Alameda County Superior Court | 1992–1997
  • Judge, Oakland, Piedmont, Emeryville Municipal Court | 1989–1992
  • Litigation associate, Pacific Bell | 1986–1989
  • Trial attorney, U. S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division | 1983–1986
  • Prosecutor, Alameda County District Attorney’s Office |1981–1983

Goodwin Liu

Associate Justice Goodwin Liu was nominated to the high court in 2011 by then-Gov. Jerry Brown, and has won one retention election. Now, he’s up for another term. Liu, a former law professor and associate law school dean at the UC Berkeley School of Law, specializes in constitutional, education law and policy and diversity in the legal profession. Liu once clerked for the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

In 2011, he was tapped for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, but then-President Barack Obama withdrew Liu’s nomination after Senate Republicans filibustered. According to news reports at the time, many senators took issue with Liu’s 2006 testimony against the Supreme Court nomination of Samuel Alito. Liu said that Alito’s pro-law enforcement record “envisions an America where police may shoot and kill an unarmed boy to stop him from running away with a stolen purse…. This is not the America we know. Nor is it the America we aspire to be.”

A son of Taiwanese immigrants, Liu grew up in Sacramento, where he attended Rio Americano High School. Liu is a graduate of Stanford University, where he earned a degree in biology. He attended Oxford University on a Rhodes Scholarship, and he received his law degree from Yale Law School.

Experience

  • Associate justice, California Supreme Court | 2011–present
  • Associate dean, UC Berkeley School of Law | 2008–2010
  • Professor, UC Berkeley School of Law | 2003–2011
  • Litigation associate, O’Melveny & Myers LLP | 2001–2003
  • Law clerk, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg | 2000–2001
  • Special assistant to the deputy secretary, U.S. Department of Education |1999–2000

More Voter Guides

City of Los Angeles

L.A. County

  • Sheriff: Compare the two candidates for L.A. County sheriff
  • Water Agencies: Learn what they do and what to look for in a candidate

How to evaluate judges

California propositions

  • Propositions 26 and 27: The difference between the sports betting ballot measures
  • Proposition 29: Why kidney dialysis is on your ballot for the third time
  • Proposition 30: Why Lyft is the biggest funder of this ballot measure

Head to the Voter Game Plan homepage for guides to the rest of your ballot.