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The atmosphere in the tiny room in an out-of-the-way corner of the Anaheim Hilton Hotel was electric, almost as if the small crowd of lawyers were awaiting a private audience with a rock star. Men and women with surnames like Ruiz, Rodriguez, Marquez, Arizmendi and Arriola — all members of La Raza Lawyers of California, a group dedicated to Hispanic legal representation — buzzed with excitement and a sense of hope. Then in walked the man of the moment — U.S. District Judge Carlos Moreno, a highly popular jurist on Los Angeles’ Central District of California and the man political observers believe is most likely to be the next justice of the California Supreme Court. There was no speechifying on this Saturday afternoon in early September, only Moreno, a bespectacled man with wavy gray hair and a grandfatherly manner, chatting amiably with unabashed admirers. The 52-year-old judge, who in the past 15 years has served on two state benches as well as the federal court, mingled with ease, posed for snapshots here and there and swore in five of the new, broadly smiling members of La Raza’s executive committee. Despite the judge’s common-guy demeanor, there was no mistaking that those around him were in awe. This was their great Latino hope, possibly the first Hispanic on the state supreme court since the 1989 departure of former Justice John Arguelles and only the third counting former Justice Cruz Reynoso who served from 1982-87. “With over 30 percent of California’s population Latino, it’s imperative that our community have representation on the supreme court,” said brand-new La Raza President Christopher Arriola, a Santa Clara County deputy district attorney. Anything else, he added, is “just not acceptable.” “That’s our seat,” former La Raza President Tony Nevarez of Sacramento chimed in defiantly, “and we want it.” Moreno isn’t talking to the press. He politely — very politely — declines reporters’ invitations, preferring instead to remain mum until a selection is made. He might not have to stay silent much longer. The Judicial Nominees Evaluation Committee, the State Bar group that rates judicial candidates for the governor, has already met to make its recommendations. And court officials are openly eager to seat a replacement for Justice Stanley Mosk — who died June 19 after 37 years on the high-court bench — hopefully before oral arguments in October. Other contenders for the slot include L.A. County Superior Court Judge Dennis Perluss, Ventura-based Second District Court of Appeal Justice Steven Perren and Fifth District Justice Dennis Cornell of Fresno. Pressure from California’s hefty Latino population is expected to increase Moreno’s chances, and it probably doesn’t hurt that Burt Pines, Gov. Gray Davis’ judicial appointments secretary, was L.A. city attorney when Moreno worked there as a deputy from 1975-79. Even so, virtually everyone who talks about Moreno says his ethnic heritage and political connections aren’t what would get him the nod. Moreno’s just a damned great judge and incredibly brilliant man, they say, who’s guaranteed to make an enormous impact as a supreme court justice. During La Raza’s celebration in Anaheim, Beryl Crumpton, president of the California Association of Black Lawyers, rushed in to tell Moreno that her group had wholeheartedly endorsed him moments before. A few days earlier, the Asian Pacific American Bar Association of Los Angeles County had done the same, noting Moreno’s varied experience as a judge on three benches, a prosecutor and a civil attorney with a private law firm. “Most people look at him and see his sterling qualifications and say, ‘Oh yeah, he’s also Hispanic,’ ” says Mona Soo Hoo, president of the Asian Pacific American Bar Association. “ But he could be anything and our group would have supported him because of his qualifications.” Soo Hoo, a criminal defense lawyer in L.A., is among many inspired by Moreno’s rise from a humble beginning in East Los Angeles — only two miles from his current courthouse — and his strong commitment to community activities. She noted he was president of the Mexican American Bar Association of Los Angeles County in 1982, an envoy for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics Organizing Committee and currently serves as director of the Arroyo Vista Family Health Center. “He’s the type of guy who doesn’t just talk about community involvement, he gets involved,” Soo Hoo says. “And I think it’s important to have justices who know what real people are really like.” GIVING UP LIFETIME TENURE Moreno’s judicial style is on full display on a Monday in late August when he’s handling a full slate of civil motions in the morning, followed by criminal sentencing in the afternoon. On one hand he’s dealing with sophisticated lawyers for companies like Lockheed Martin Corp. and Reliance Insurance Co. and on the other addressing frightened, mostly Latino men, facing time behind bars. His manner doesn’t change as he calmly lays out his options to the criminal defendants and intently listens to the civil litigants’ lawyers while propping his head with his balled-up fist against his mouth and his thumb across his cheek. In a soft voice, Moreno answers one lawyer’s request to pursue an additional line of questioning by telling her she’s the first case of the day and he’s still patient, while later motioning another lawyer to stand up when she inadvertently starts addressing the bench from her seat. That afternoon, he quietly listens as a man charged with counterfeiting says he pleaded guilty only to protect his father, the true counterfeiter, before sentencing him to 33 months in prison. “The evidence shows,” Moreno says, “that he was part and parcel in manufacturing the currency.” Friends and acquaintances say Moreno is prepared to give up life tenure on the federal bench to make sure the state supreme court has a Latino presence. “It’s important that the Latino community look at the judicial system and believe in it, and one of the ways you believe in it is seeing an institution that reflects your culture and the knowledge that you are part of the community,” says Palo Alto lawyer Fred Alvarez. “Having someone like Carlos [on the court] is a great symbol of that.” Alvarez, a partner at Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, has known Moreno since their days together at Stanford Law School in the early ’70s, and he’s struck by the fact that his old friend has changed so little. “He’s one of those people who don’t take themselves very seriously, but take what they do seriously,” he says. “He has a sense of humor. He’s levelheaded. He sort of lets the chips fall where they may.” Born in 1948 into a family in East L.A. that owned a cheese and produce business, Moreno played sports at Lincoln High School. Then he astonished family members by going to Yale University for his undergraduate studies and then on to Stanford where he got his law degree in 1975. A man who reportedly plays the piano, loves opera, rides motorcycles and enjoys crossword puzzles, Moreno was soon a deputy city attorney with the L.A. city attorney’s office. It was in that position that Elwood Lui, an L.A. County Superior Court judge at the time, first met Moreno. “He stood out as one of the most competent lawyers I’d seen from that office,” says Lui, who later served six years as a justice on L.A.’s Second District Court of Appeal. “He had appropriate prosecutorial attitude and he wasn’t trying to oversell the case. He was winning cases right and left, and jurors loved him.” Lui, now a partner in the L.A. office of Cleveland’s Jones, Day, Reavis & Pogue, was so impressed that he convinced Moreno to join Kelley, Drye & Warren, Lui’s firm at the time. Moreno made the jump, representing institutional clients on everything from bankruptcy and banking to antitrust issues before being appointed to the Compton Municipal Court by Gov. George Deukmejian in 1986. Gov. Pete Wilson elevated Moreno to the superior court in 1993, where he once again won raves from lawyers. L.A. County Deputy District Attorney Patrick Dixon, who tried three murder cases before Moreno in state court, calls him “one of the best judges I’ve ever appeared before.” He recalls that in one of the murder trials, he and opposing counsel waived jury trial. “There’s really no higher compliment in those serious murder cases, that both sides have complete confidence in his fairness and judgment,” says Dixon, who represents L.A. County on the State Bar Board of Governors. In addition, he notes, Moreno made the murder defendants feel as comfortable with him in the decision seat as they might have felt with jurors. Soo Hoo mentions the same thing. “He gives my clients their dignity,” she says. “He doesn’t treat them like just another defendant, and that’s important.” More than one individual also pointed out that Moreno, a moderate to conservative Democrat, was appointed to his two state court posts by Republicans, and then to federal court in 1998 by Democratic President Bill Clinton. “That tells you,” Alvarez says, “that some people are seeing a solid, reliable person who will do the right thing.” ‘CHUCKIE’ BECOMES CARLOS La Raza lawyers say that if Moreno makes it onto the supreme court, they still won’t be satisfied. Of the state’s 105 appeal court justices, they state, only four are Hispanic and they’re all Republicans. “We feel that the court of appeal is the place where most of the law in California is made,” La Raza President Arriola says. “The Latino voice needs to be represented. It’s not a matter of a certain percentage, it’s just a matter of a meaningful representation.” Moreno is the only Mexican American on the L.A. federal bench, and he got there easily, winning Senate confirmation by a 96-0 vote. He was quickly feted in L.A. with a warm reception. Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Victor Chavez recalled at the reception that Moreno went off to Yale with the nickname “Chuckie,” but came home as Carlos. Terry Hatter Jr., then chief judge of the Central District, welcomed Moreno to the court with the friendly call of “compadre,” while Hatter’s longtime secretary Betty Escobar proclaimed: “Gee, we finally got a homeboy.” Moreno himself made a speech that brought tears to everyone’s eyes, including himself as he choked on his words while mentioning that his mother and father hadn’t lived long enough to see him become a lawyer, let alone a judge. “He was sincere and emotional about his family, and about what they had tried to provide him,” fellow U.S. District Judge William “Matt” Byrne Jr. recalls. “It touched everybody.” On the federal bench, Moreno has tackled some tough cases. Less than two weeks ago, he awarded $5.7 million in compensatory damages and $25.7 million in punitives — half the $53.2 million in punis granted by jurors — to Cable & Computer Technology Inc. in a contractual battle with Lockheed Sanders Inc. over components of the B-1 Bomber. Just last November, Moreno surprised some by barring a Southern California jewelry maker from moving to Tijuana, Mexico, in order to avoid unionization. In fact, he ordered the company’s owners to bring back truckloads of equipment they had shipped south and to negotiate with the National Labor Relations Board. “That’s extraordinary for a judge to take a step to order a runaway shop to reopen,” Alvarez says. “And Carlos did it.” But Moreno has suffered his share of reversals at the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The 9th Circuit sent the B-1 Bomber case back to Moreno after reversing most of his rulings on defense motions. It also reversed Moreno’s 1999 ruling in a case in which he held that registration of a domain name with the intent to use it commercially was sufficient to convey trademark rights. Those are rarities, say friends, who call Moreno one of the most gifted intellectuals they know. They also predict that Moreno would fit in well with the six other supreme court justices. He’ll also not forget his ethnic heritage, they say. Alvarez recalls that he and Moreno were founding members of La Rondalla, a mariachi band at Stanford, and that it was important for Moreno to participate even though he played no instrument. “He was with us in spirit,” Alvarez says, “and was just a spiritual leader.” Many California Hispanics hope Moreno gets a chance to do the same thing on the supreme court.

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