Here’s a name you need to get to know: Tino Cuellar. Who is Tino Cuellar? The potential Supreme Court nominee who could tie the Republican Party in the most Gordian knots of any of them, and who could thereby alter the presidential race dramatically as well.
Yes, yes; Barack Obama should choose the person best qualified for the job with whom he is most intellectually comfortable. But should that person be Mariano Florentino Cuellar, there could be plenty of benefits aside from having a brilliant, young, Latino person on the court.
Cuellar, 43, is an associate justice on California’s State Supreme Court. He was born in Mexico. He is a naturalized U.S. citizen. He grew up on the border, and his family moved to California’s Imperial Valley when he was a teenager. He was smart and decided he wanted an education. He got one, all right. Get this resume: undergrad, Harvard; law school, Yale; master’s and doctoral degrees, Stanford.
Here’s his full Stanford bio, so you can give it a gander, but it’s incredibly impressive. He worked at the White House, he worked in the Treasury Department, he taught law at Stanford. “He’s a brilliant guy,” says Samuel Bagenstos, a law professor at the University of Michigan who knows Cuellar. “He’d be the justice with the most wide-ranging intellect since William O. Douglas.” (Bagenstos asked me to note that he is backing no single candidate and thinks the president has many good choices.)
He was elevated to California’s high court by a unanimous bipartisan vote, and given the highest possible rating by the California Bar Association. He is married to a U.S. district judge, Lucy Koh, who is a formidable intellect in her own right—the Senate confirmed her unanimously, 90-0, when Obama nominated her to that position in 2010. And they have two kids.
Now assuming there’s no skeleton in the old closet, suppose Obama sends Cuellar up to be nominated. Oh what fun it shall be.
We know almost to a certainty that the Republicans will oppose anyone. Mitch McConnell said it, all the presidential candidates said it, everyone says it, and everyone knows it. For a Republican senator to vote for Barack Obama’s replacement of the great Antonin Scalia would be as sure a form of instant political suicide as one can imagine in this country. There is just no way. And it may not even get to a vote. They’ll just sit on it, not even scheduling confirmation hearings, saying the American people deserve a voice in this nomination.
And Obama will say, as I noted yesterday, that I’m still the president and am going to be president for a while yet, and we have no modern precedent for letting the court have an even number of members.
And then Americans will learn about Cuellar’s life story. The fancy universities, the four degrees, the testimonials to his intellect that will stream in. And of course he’d be not the first Latino, but still, the second out of nine, and the first Mexican-American (Sonia Sotomayor is Puerto Rican), who constitute by far the largest demographic group among American Latinos.
This is Reince Priebus’s perfect nightmare, is it not? Let America watch as old white-guy senator after old white-guy senator goes on TV to say “Oh, it’s nothing against Mr. Cuellar, it’s all about Obama, and the people’s voice.” And let America watch as nominee Donald Trump says the same thing. Or even Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz—in some ways that’s even worse for the GOP, to have a Cuban-American (or Cuban-Canadian-American) stand up and say this Mexican-American doesn’t belong on the Supreme Court. There are around 33 million Mexican-Americans in the country—and around 2 million Cuban Americans. How well do you think the math on that works for the GOP?
So Priebus, who in his silly little autopsy in 2013 insisted that Republicans were going to be the inclusive party and who still has the gall to talk like that today, even as his party’s voters convert a howling xenophobe into their front-runner, would have quite a situation on his hands. And we get to Election Day, and poor Cuellar has been sitting there for seven months after nomination without even having had the courtesy of a committee hearing.
What percentage of the Latino vote is the Republican nominee going to get then, if the party has precipitated a veritable constitutional crisis by refusing to perform its constitutional role and refusing to vote for this obviously qualified man? Maybe 12, 15, 18 tops? Tops. Remember, Romney got 27 percent, and it was considered a disaster. If the GOP nominee gets 18, winning Florida is an impossibility. And if winning Florida is an impossibility, then winning the White House is, too. Even Arizona is probably unwinnable for the Republicans with a number like that.
Now obviously, that is, as I said, Priebus’s worst nightmare. Things could be different. And again, I don’t think Obama should nominate Cuellar for these political reasons. But if he decided to nominate him, boy would it be great to see those people squirm.