Justices of the California Supreme Court consider a case. California Supreme Court justices in San Francisco. Courtesy of Judicial Council of California.

Gov. Gavin Newsom has a track record of historic gubernatorial appointments: the first Black secretary of state, the first Latino U.S. senator and the first attorney general of Filipino descent. He has a chance to make history once again by filling the vacancy left by Justice Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar’s departure from the California Supreme Court with a Latina, which would be a long-overdue and necessary first.

While Cuéllar is a Mexican American immigrant who rose to the highest levels of the state’s judicial system, Latinos historically have been drastically underrepresented in the judiciary. Latinos only represent about 10% of the judges in the state’s appellate court system, while representing almost 40% of the state’s population. The lack of representation is even worse for Latinas: they represent only four of the 97 current appellate judges, and three out of six state appellate courts have no Latinas.

If the vacancy isn’t filled with a Latino, the state’s highest court will have no representation from California’s plurality population. It’s time for Newsom to go even one step further and ensure that spot is filled by a Latina.

When it comes to Latino and gender representation on its highest court, California is lagging behind other states with large Latino populations. For example, Texas has a seated Latina on its Supreme Court, whereas Florida has two seated Latinos. New Jersey is currently tied with California for one Latino Supreme Court judge, but that will change when Cuéllar leaves the bench. In order for California’s Supreme Court to reflect the population it serves, at least two of its appointees would need to be Latino.

Representation matters for judicial appointments. The state’s court systems serve as an important pipeline for high-profile jobs in the justice system, as evidenced by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who was tapped for the job from the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

In Latino legal circles, the recent appointment of voting rights advocate Myrna Pérez to the 2nd Circuit was met with celebration. For there to be future appointments that give Latinos the proportional representation that they deserve at the federal level, there needs to be a greater presence in the state court systems.

There is no shortage of legal talent here in California that can rise to the occasion. The UCLA Latino Policy and Politics Initiative, where I work, recently joined a group of Latino leaders and legal experts to advocate for a Latina appointment and recommend qualified Latina lawyers across the state including experts in housing, immigration, labor, voting rights and community development issues, which are all essential perspectives for someone making critical statewide legal decisions that affect all Californians.

Much like it matters for citizens to see themselves reflected by their politicians or for students to have teachers who understand their cultural perspectives, trust and confidence in the judicial system is also strengthened by greater diversity and representation. 

The future California Supreme Court justice will work on issues such as worker rights in emerging sectors, tenant protections in the face of widespread evictions, and the ongoing public health responses of local governments to the COVID-19 pandemic. It is time for a Latina to provide her life story, legal experience and personal background to these important decisions.

Latinos — and especially Latinas — have proven to be essential economic and cultural contributors to California, particularly during a pandemic where the community suffered a disproportionate share of the public health and financial fallout.

Newsom has a chance to make history and give a Latina her rightful place in the California Supreme Court, making the judicial system stronger and fairer.

Paul Barragan-Monge is the director of mobilization for the UCLA Latino Policy and Politics Initiative, a Latino-focused think tank. He wrote this for CalMatters, a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s Capitol works and why it matters.

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