Brown Adviser Groban Confirmed to California High Court

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – Joshua Groban, legal adviser to outgoing California Governor Jerry Brown, sailed through his confirmation hearing Friday to become a California Supreme Court justice after a unanimous vote.

California Supreme Court nominee Josh Groban addresses the Commission on Judicial Appointments on Dec. 21, 2018. The panel unanimously approved Groban’s appointment to the bench. (Judicial Council of California)

“I want to thank the governor for having the confidence to select me,” Groban said after the vote. “I will try every day to fulfill the promise he saw in me.”

Groban didn’t lack for glowing comments from supporters who testified before the Commission on Judicial Appointments Friday. 

“Josh is warm, affable, engaging and unpretentious. He is open to all points of view. He has a keen mind and ferrets out inconsistencies and ambiguities in the law with a twinkle in his eye. What matters is getting the right result,” said Justice Arthur Gilbert before the panel made up of Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, state Attorney General Xavier Becerra and First Appellate District Presiding Justice J. Anthony Kline.

“Josh is a mensch. The collegiately and mutual respect that exists in the court will continue with Josh as a member,” Gilbert said.

Brown appointed Groban in November to fill the vacancy left by the 2017 retirement of Justice Kathryn Mickle Werdegar.

While Groban brings with him raft of legal experience, he completes a series of Supreme Court justices appointed by Brown with no previous experience on the bench. This was an issue raised by Kline.

“Wait a minute, Arthur,” he said.

“Everything you say about Josh Groban I know to be true. I know he’s qualified to sit on the California Supreme Court. I don’t think those are the issues that some of you are thinking about. If he is confirmed, then a majority of the members of the California Supreme court will consist of people who have never previously sat on a court.

“During the 16 years that Jerry Brown was governor, he nominated 11 people to the Supreme Court. A majority of them had not previously served as judges. There are people in the judicial and legal community who don’t think it’s healthy for a court to be dominated at least numerically by people who have never sat in the judicial trenches.”

Kline said he had discussed the issue with Groban on several occasions before he was nominated, and that it was Groban’s view the vacancy should be filled by either a trial judge or justice.

“I’m confident Josh Groban is not Dick Cheney. I don’t believe he engineered this. He believed that, at least that’s what he told me and I agree,” Kline said. “What advice would you give him to allay this concern that many judges and lawyers have?”

Gilbert said he had also discussed the issue at length with Groban, who had already sought his advice.

“It’s true he doesn’t have trial experience and I’ve heard this complaint just in general. We can’t always tell how a judge is going to turn out. You have a point. But he is so interested in seeking out views and he has such a warm connection with other and a sympathy and a kind of understanding of human nature, that I think he’s going to be a superb justice despite not having been down in the trenches,” Gilbert said.

A practicing lawyer, Groban spent eight years in Sacramento as Brown’s senior adviser on policy and appointments. As part of the job, he vetted some 600 appointments to the judiciary and has been heralded for his role in diversifying the bench dramatically in terms of gender, race, sexual orientation and type of practice. He also served as legal counsel for Brown’s campaign in 2010.

“To me what epitomizes Josh Groban is that for justice to be just it must be made up of judges who are not only wise and intelligent but who reflect the people the system serves. Josh Gobran has dedicated the last 8 years of his life to accomplishing that,” said Justice Terry Stewart, who was appointed to the First Appellate District bench by Brown in 2014.

“Before this administration, nobody ever kept track of, much less recruited, LGBT judges. Suffice it to say we were underrepresented,” said Stewart, who is the first lesbian to openly serve on an appeals court in California. “As of the end of 2017, there were about 53 sitting judges who were LGBT.”

Stewart said this shows Groban will be open to different points of view and “will bring an open heart and mind to the litigants whose cases come before him.”

A Southern California native, Groban graduated from Stanford and Harvard Law School. He also lectures on state appellate practice at the University of California, Los Angeles School of Law. He clerked for U.S. District Judge William Conner in New York from 1998-1999, and was an attorney at Munger, Tolles and Olson from 2005-2010, and at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton and Garrison from 1999-2005.

Kline said he has no doubt Groban will be an “outstanding judge,” but reiterated his question about Brown’s recent appointments.

“Is it healthy to have a court in which only a minority of the members of the court have sat on a trial or appellate court? Look, this is the biggest judicial system in the world. The California judiciary is twice the side of the federal judiciary. No nation has as many judges. You don’t have what I think a court needs,” Kline said.

“The question that the appointment raises in the minds of many people is, are the quotidian events that go on in the courts in this state going to be fully appreciated by a large number of judges who have never been there?”

Stewart, who had never served as a judge prior to her appointment, said, “Yes, Josh is the fourth non-judge. But there were three others and they have been terrific, and I don’t think this will be any different. And what he lacks in that experience, he will find a way to make it up, because that’s the kind of guy Josh Groban is.”

Speaking for himself, Groban said he was humbled to go before the commission. He spent a good part of his remarks thanking his wife Deborah, who he married in 2011. She sat in the courtroom holding their sleeping three-year-old daughter on her lap. Their six-year-old son was also in attendance, along with his parents and in-laws.

“Many of us have pursued careers that have required incredible sacrifice from our partners,” he said, noting her years spent dealing with two young children while state business kept him away from home.

“It sounds like the job you’re going to take is a lot easier than the one you have,” Attorney General Becerra said, to laughter from Groban. “If you can figure out a way to keep litigants as content as I see your two kids are, it’s going to be a good mark.”

He then asked Groban if he was going to be a “conventional justice.”

Groban replied, “I hope to be conventional in the sense of being duty-bound by precedent and the like.  I only hope to be unconventional in the sense that I think each of the justices of the court provide their own unique background and experience and point of view.”

Becerra joked, “You were more respectful than I thought” before asking about Groban’s past involvement in politics and shaping policy. “Can you divorce the law from the political realities that you will face as one of the justices on the Supreme Court? When you’re about to rule for not just 40 million Californians, but Americans throughout this country?”

Groban answered, “If confirmed, we are always guided by the law and the court really has the luxury quite frankly in this rancorous political climate of being duty-bound to distance itself from political considerations.

“I think each justice brings with him or her a sense of who they are and their values, a sense of empathy, a sense of a nation created for all, a sense of fairness, kindness and compassion and if confirmed, I hope those values will carry with me and guide me.”

After being sworn in by Brown on Jan. 3, Groban will take the bench when the high court reconvenes Jan. 8.

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