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U.S. District Judge Carlos Moreno looked out over a crowd of lawyers and judges at the Casa Italiana Cultural Center on the edge of Chinatown in Los Angeles and spoke about feeling right at home. He grew up only a mile away, he noted, and as a young Mexican-American boy took his first communion at the Italian Catholic church directly across the parking lot. And the last time he had been in this very cultural center, he said, he had sung a small role in “Rigoletto” in one of his occasional appearances with the Casa Italiana Opera Co. A sigh of contentment, followed by hearty applause, rose from the crowd made up mostly of members of the Italian American Lawyers Association. It was a show of support for a local boy done good, especially considering that on Oct. 17 Moreno will almost certainly be confirmed to the California Supreme Court, filling the seat vacated by the June death of longtime Justice Stanley Mosk. “I don’t think I can replace Justice Mosk,” Moreno said as California Chief Justice Ronald George sat next to him. “But I will try to mirror the best he did for our state.” The 52-year-old Moreno has come a long way. A first-generation American born into a family that operated a produce business still run to this day by his brothers in what’s broadly defined as East L.A., Moreno burst out into realms few, if any, of his peers could have imagined. The signs of success were there early. Moreno was the speaker at his grammar school graduation and was the student body president in his junior high school. And when college beckoned, Moreno went off to Yale University, followed by Stanford Law School. Moreno credits his boyhood teachers for inspiring him. “I don’t know if they’ll listen to this,” he said, while touring his old neighborhood with a reporter last week, “but [kids] should listen to their teachers and their parents.” He also believes all kids should go to college, and it doesn’t have to be Yale or Stanford. “Just go somewhere,” Moreno said. “Just get that education. Otherwise, you’ll get stuck. It’s hard being a kid these days, with all the distractions.” Yet with all his success, Moreno hasn’t ventured far from home. His current office in downtown L.A. is about two miles by crow’s flight from the old Los Angeles General Hospital, where he was born, and he’s a little disconcerted about leaving that all behind when he moves to San Francisco, where the supreme court is based. It means Moreno will live most of his time in an apartment, rather than with his wife and two children. It means he won’t get to make those frequent visits to his brothers at the family business for lunch. And he won’t get to drop by his favorite neighborhood restaurants, such as La Llamarada, a friendly hole-in-the-wall in the Five Points area of Lincoln Heights that serves up tasty Mexican food at prices too cheap to comprehend. Moreno found the place by driving by on the way to work every day and noticing that it was always crowded. On a quiet day last week, Moreno dined on a lengua torta — a tongue sandwich with refried beans and mayonnaise — while talking in Spanish with a waitress whose son used to be a bailiff in the federal court. Moreno said he will miss places like this, not the least of all because no one at La Llamarada, which Moreno said loosely translates to “The Campfire,” knows he’s a judge, let alone soon to be sitting on the highest court in the state. Minutes later, Moreno drove to a high hill overlooking L.A. and pointed out the boundaries of his life. Over there is the hospital where he was born, and over there the street where his family lived. Down there is the high school he attended, and in the distance is the courthouse where he has worked since 1998. “It’s a pretty small area,” he said, “where I’ve spent most of my life.” Moreno grew up in a nondescript house on a hillside in what the locals then called La Loma. Moreno now calls the place Solano Canyon. His family’s old house is still there, owned by others now and looking rundown. It’s just off busy Highway 110 across the street from his elementary school, and Moreno can point to houses and name the families who still live there. Moreno’s fondness for the place is obvious, as he talks about what a great place it was to grow up. Kids played in nearby Elysian Park, he said, and climbed the hill that used to separate the neighborhood from the site of what’s now Dodger Stadium. “In those days, boys could run wild and have fun,” he said. “You could be gone for hours and your parents wouldn’t worry about you.” Moreno recalled being on hand the day ground was broken for Dodger Stadium in 1959 and attending the first game with his family three years later. The Cincinnati Red Legs were playing, he said, and kids got free Coca-Cola. Urban kids have tougher lives nowadays, Moreno said, and he often tries to make personal contact with them. In fact, he’s speaking later this month at his old alma mater, Abraham Lincoln High School, located in Lincoln Heights, a neighborhood that reflects the evolving diversity of Los Angeles. “I love it,” he said, looking into the school’s courtyard. “You might reach more than a handful of the kids and inspire them to move on.” Driving around the neighborhood, pointing out locales that have been important to his life, Moreno said he definitely considers himself a role model for Latinos and is sure his life experiences will, in some way, shape his judicial thoughts. “But I certainly don’t see myself as a Latino justice,” he said, adding that he is confident his elevation to the high court was based on merit, a fact Gov. Gray Davis took pains to mention when announcing the appointment. “I really believe,” Moreno said, “one can distill the law in a neutral, detached fashion without bringing in ethnicity.” In fact, he said he would consider it a “disservice” to Latinos or any other group for a judge or justice to be chosen solely to meet a quota. Asked whether he had to pass a litmus test on hot issues to win Davis over, Moreno walked a fine line. “I was interviewed by the governor and we talked about many things, and after that interview he decided to appoint me,” he said. “People think you talk about the death penalty and abortion,” he added. “You talk about a few dozen legal issues. But [Davis] never point-blank asked, ‘Are you in favor or are you against’ any particular thing.” Moreno said he never met Davis before the interview. He also had not met California Govs. George Deukmejian and Pete Wilson or President Bill Clinton before he was appointed to his previous and current seats on the state and federal benches. He believes that speaks well about his qualifications and political moderation. “I don’t feel I’m pro-defense or pro-plaintiff,” Moreno said. “But I’ve certainly seen a lot in trials. And that’ll be my greatest strength. I’ve always appreciated when the appellate courts have deferred to trial courts because of their hands-on experience.” Some pundits wondered why Moreno would give up life tenure on the federal court to jump into the monastic life of the California Supreme Court. His current office is palatial by state court standards and contains memorabilia from his life, including a vibrant painting by his wife, Christine, an art teacher at a local college, that shows Moreno cartwheeling through an abstract L.A. after being named to the federal bench. Mrs. Moreno should probably do a follow-up showing her husband cartwheeling through San Francisco because he definitely doesn’t see the supreme court as a step down. For one, he said, going from the federal bench to the supreme court in California isn’t unreasonable, considering the power and influence of the court he’s joining. For another, he said, he can make more of an impact than he could on the federal court. “A trial court judge works with litigants one-on-one on a daily basis,” he pointed out, “whereas the supreme court decides what kinds of cases it will hear and shapes the direction of the law. “It’s a real qualitative difference,” he said. When he joins the court, Moreno, a moderate Democrat, will be debating issues with six Republican justices, and he admits he’s not sure how he’ll fit in. “Whether I’ll agree or disagree with the other justices,” he said, “only time will tell.” For his part, Chief Justice George believes Moreno will be an asset to the court and noted at the gathering of Italian-American lawyers that he’s well aware of Moreno’s reputation as a “cohesive” judge. “When I gave my colleagues at our traditional Wednesday conference a few hours’ advance notice of the governor’s choice [on Sept. 26], without exception we were unanimous,” he said. “Everybody burst into cheers and had smiles on their faces.” By the big grin on his own face, Moreno was happy to hear that. This is a guy whose dreams never went as far as reality has taken him. He said even in law school, he and other friends who eventually became judges never aspired to the bench, let alone the supreme court. That, he said, would have been far too presumptuous. Well, he’s there now, and as thrilled as he is for the opportunity, he admits he will miss L.A. and the hometown ties. And while he can’t replace his lunches at La Llamarada and other eateries in the old neighborhood, he’s open to suggestions for good, out-of-the-way restaurants in San Francisco’s Mission District. “I hear,” he said, “that’s not too far from the court.”

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