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California Supreme Court nominee Carlos Moreno might be a longtime Democrat, but experts say not to expect him to prop up the left side of the court like predecessor Stanley Mosk — especially on criminal issues. Moreno, appointed last week as the newest justice, is clearly a moderate, not a liberal, they say, and will fit comfortably into the center of the court now dominated by Chief Justice Ronald George. “His reputation is that he is quite conservative on law-and-order issues and will probably be following a little different pattern than Justice Mosk in the criminal arena,” Gerald Uelmen, a professor at the University of Santa Clara School of Law, said last Thursday. “Justice Mosk was one of the more liberal justices when it came to reviewing criminal cases, and I don’t think Judge Moreno will fit into that niche.” Uelmen said Moreno’s track record on sentencing decisions in Los Angeles federal court, where he currently sits, “indicate a little more pro-prosecution bent than we saw from Justice Mosk.” The 52-year-old Moreno, who was born and raised in East Los Angeles, about two miles from his current courtroom, was appointed last week by Gov. Gray Davis to replace Mosk, who died in June. Moreno still faces an Oct. 17 confirmation hearing in San Francisco before the Commission on Judicial Appointments, but no one expects problems in light of the fact that all 29 members of the State Bar’s judge evaluation commission gave Moreno their highest rating of exceptionally well qualified. If Moreno is less liberal on criminal issues as Uelmen suggests — and as Boalt Hall School of Law Professor Stephen Barnett agrees — it might only be natural. After all, Moreno prosecuted misdemeanors at the L.A. city attorney’s office from 1975-79. Barnett is also interested in seeing whether Moreno stirs things up by bringing in his own staff attorneys or law clerks, rather than relying on the mostly white staff attorneys at the court. “If Justice Moreno is to bring any racial diversity to his own staff,” Barnett said, “he needs to buck the bureaucracy and hire some old-fashioned law clerks.” Unlike the U.S. Supreme Court, where the justices rely on annual clerks, the state justices each employ five career research attorneys, and there is little turnover. Gov. Davis didn’t allow questioning after Moreno’s appointment, so reporters didn’t get to query the new justice on sensitive issues such as the death penalty, abortion and racial diversity. But the governor’s aides had indicated earlier that Davis was looking for a judge who favored abortion rights and capital punishment, and diversity has been a major goal of the governor’s administration. As a federal judge since 1998, Moreno has had to handle a complex mix of civil and criminal matters, including death penalty habeas corpus reviews. As a superior court judge in L.A. from 1993-1998, he also handled death penalty cases and criminal sentencing. Lawyers quoted in the 2001 edition of the “Almanac of the Federal Judiciary” said that while they believed Moreno was fair, he was “not soft on crime” and could be “tough on sentencing.” One said he’s “more moderate on sentencing than I expected him to be.” Patrick Dixon, a deputy district attorney in L.A. who handled several cases, including three murder trials, before Moreno in state court, said the judge’s lack of bias was so well known that there were times when opposing parties waived jury trial and let Moreno reach a verdict. “I don’t really see a bias or that he’s prone to rule for the prosecution or for the defense, or be a pro-prosecution judge or a pro-defense judge at all,” Dixon said Thursday. “He is right down the middle and absolutely a wonderful judge and fair judge.” Dixon won the two jury murder trials before Moreno. And in the third, a non-death penalty case in which Moreno was the judge and jury, one of three counts of murder was dismissed, and the two defendants were found guilty on the remaining charges. Dixon’s premise about Moreno’s inherent fairness could be borne out, though, by the fact that the judge one year during his superior court tenure won the Judge of the Year award handed out by the criminal justice section of the Los Angeles County Bar Association. The award by a group that has both prosecution and defense members honors “those individuals who have consistently demonstrated legal excellence and dedication to the practice of criminal law.” Some experts say that even if Moreno isn’t as liberal as Mosk, particularly on criminal issues, he’s still a centrist without ideological tilt. That would seem to play into Davis’ comments Wednesday that he believes Moreno will be “a consensus builder who understands that the court must come together.” But Uelmen, of Santa Clara, said there will definitely be times when Moreno will be the swing vote. “The court is averaging about 10 percent of its opinions that will be split right down the middle,” he said. “Those are the cases where one vote can make a difference, and I expect [Moreno] will make a difference in many of those cases, especially the criminal ones.”

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