Exploring the life of Justice Leondra Kruger, a potential U.S. Supreme Court nominee

As President Biden examines the records of potential Supreme Court nominees, we continue our series of profiles of the women on his short list. California Supreme Court Justice Leondra Kruger has never faced questions from the Senate Judiciary Committee, unlike some of the other top contenders. But she is already familiar with breaking barriers during her life and career. Geoff Bennett reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As President Biden examines the records of potential Supreme Court nominees, we continue our series of profiles of the women we believe are on his short list, tonight, California Supreme Court Justice Leondra Kruger, who, unlike some of the other top contenders, has never faced questions from the Senate Judiciary Committee.

    Geoff Bennett has our report.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    It's a title Leondra Kruger already knows well, justice. While she'd be the first Black woman to join the court, being the first is a position she knows well too.

    Kruger grew up in the suburbs of Los Angeles, both parents doctors. Her mother immigrated from Jamaica, her father the son of European Jewish immigrants. She attended an elite prep school, where she played the cello and was editor of the school paper. That led to undergrad at Harvard and then Yale Law School, where she became the first Black woman to serve as editor in chief of The Yale Law Journal.

  • Renato Mariotti, Former Federal Prosecutor:

    At the time, I didn't even understand what a trailblazing selection she was.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Renato Mariotti is a former federal prosecutor who attended law school with Kruger.

  • Renato Mariotti:

    I cannot imagine herding a more difficult set of cats than herding the editors in The Yale Law Journal. It really speaks well to her ability to work well with others and build a consensus.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Even as she was breaking barriers, Mariotti says the effects of racism were still very clear.

  • Renato Mariotti:

    There's a cab that passed her up, even though she was in a business suit hailing a cab right in front of me, and came and stopped by me instead. And I remember I opened the door for her to get in and get into my cab that I had hailed.

    And she gave me this look that I didn't understand at the time. I can imagine that it's just part of what she's had to go through her entire life.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Kruger's first job at the Supreme Court was as a clerk for the late John Paul Stevens, the long-serving liberal justice. She later recalled the advice he gave his former clerks on his 99th birthday.

  • Justice Leondra Kruger, California State Supreme Court:

    Always work hard and do your best.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Years later, she entered the courtroom again, this time as an advocate, representing the U.S. government in the Solicitor General's Office for both Republican and Democratic presidents.

  • Justice Leondra Kruger:

    Mr. Chief justice, and may it please the court.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    She argued 12 cases before the justices, more than any other Black woman in history.

  • Neal Katyal, Former Acting U.S. Solicitor General:

    She is so smart, so careful, so meticulous, so poised.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Neal Katyal named Kruger his deputy when he served as acting U.S. solicitor general in the Obama administration. He sat in the chambers during 10 of Kruger's cases.

  • Neal Katyal:

    I was blown away by her ability to take withering criticism, pause, smile, and answer it head on. She clearly had the respect of every justice on the Supreme Court.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    That poise under pressure was seen in one of the most high-profile cases she argued for the government, at issue, religion and employment discrimination. The position she argued has become a potential red flag for conservatives, who fear she could be hostile to religious liberty.

    Both conservative and liberal justices sounded skeptical during those arguments.

  • Justice Leondra Kruger:

    We think how the inquiry plays out in particular cases may be…

  • Antonin Scalia, Former Acting U.S. Solicitor General, Former U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice,:

    that's extraordinary.

  • Elena Kagan, U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice:

    I too find that amazing.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    And a unanimous court decided against the Obama administration.

    After leaving the Department of Justice, she moved back to California, appointed to the state Supreme Court by Democratic Governor Jerry Brown. Her confirmation hearing lasted just 35 minutes. And she was unanimously confirmed by the committee, which included then-Attorney General Kamala Harris.

  • Justice Leondra Kruger:

    I, Leondra Kruger, do solemnly swear…

  • Geoff Bennett:

    When she took the bench in January 2015, she was just 38 years old, one of the youngest justices in state history, and just the second Black woman.

  • Justice Leondra Kruger:

    It is a responsibility to approach each case with an open mind and with an awareness that the court's decisions matter in ways that are manifold to the lives of the people that we serve.

  • Man:

    All rise.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    On the bench, she's seen as a moderating voice.

    Margaret Russell, Santa Clara University School of Law: She often writes unanimous opinions, so it doesn't mean that she's always in disagreement. But her reputation, in addition to being brilliant and well-accomplished, is of being more at the center.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    An analysis from the California Constitution Center at U.C. Berkeley School of law says she's been the median justice on the court and proceeds from a neutral approach that produces equivalent proportions of relatively liberal and conservative results.

    She's authored opinions on issues, including access to police body camera footage, police searches of vehicles at traffic stops, and the death penalty.

  • Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, California Supreme Court:

    She's immensely talented and is the right pick for this position.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, herself appointed by former Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, says Kruger is respected by her colleagues on the bench and works to find common ground.

  • Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye:

    She's a consensus builder, and she does it with an open mind and fairness, and she does it respectfully. Even though there might come a time in the case where you may depart from her reasoning or she from yours, it's never unreasonable. It's never outlandish. It's always understandable.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    An approach she says would benefit the U.S. Supreme Court.

  • Margaret Russell:

    Good luck with that. That's not going to happen. I think that this court is very strongly divided. And the best of consensus-building personalities will not be able to get over some chasms in interpretations of the Constitution. The divide is clearly there.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    One potential hurdle for a nomination, the rise from state court directly to the Supreme Court is rare.

  • Sandra Day O’Connor, Former U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice:

    I do so swear.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    It hasn't happened since Sandra Day O'Connor in 1981.

  • Justice Leondra Kruger:

    The U.S. Supreme Court, like the California Supreme Court in matters of state law, is a court of last resort.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    But, for Kruger, it's exactly that experience in California that helps shape how she sees the role of the U.S. Supreme Court.

  • Justice Leondra Kruger:

    The United States Supreme Court's job is to help provide answers and advance the understanding and development of the law.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    As the president considers who to appoint, this is the second time Kruger has found herself on Biden's radar. She was previously offered the job of solicitor general, but turned it down.

  • Neal Katyal:

    She thinks of herself more as a judge and less as an advocate.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    If she finds herself at the top of Biden's list again, a lifetime appointment and a place in history might be harder to turn down.

    What's the significance, as you see it, of Justice Kruger being the first Black woman to sit on the Supreme Court?

  • Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye:

    We in the judiciary, more than any other branch of government, we rely on the public's trust and confidence. And in order to have that, we, I think, must reflect the diversity of the people whose lives we are intruding upon.

    It makes it important that people know that we know what's happening to them we can understand. And so it's a first that will build dreams. It's the kind of first that will be self-affirming, like, yes!

  • Geoff Bennett:

    At 45 years old, she'd be the youngest nominee in more than 30 years and be in a position to influence the direction of the Supreme Court for decades to come.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Geoff Bennett.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And in case you missed our earlier reports, you can learn more about Leondra Kruger and two other women we believe are likely on the president's short list at PBS.org/NewsHour.

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