Photo of Justice Moreno
Justice Carlos R. Moreno, JD ’75 (Photo by Colin Clark)

It was a busy day for 
Justice Carlos R. Moreno, and his schedule was packed with 
meetings. But instead of tending to business on California’s 
Supreme Court, as he had for the last decade serving as an associate 
justice, he was interviewing students at Stanford Law School for summer firm positions. The interviews were going well. “The students were overwhelmingly smart, poised, accomplished, and interested in broader 
issues outside the practice of law—and socially conscious,” says 
Moreno, JD ’75, now Of Counsel at Irell & Manella LLP in Los 
Angeles. Moreno’s decision to retire from the bench last spring took most court watchers by surprise (he’d just won election to another 12-year term). But for Moreno, the timing was right. “I wanted to leave while I was still intellectually curious, still willing to make a change, still young enough to make a valuable contribution to the private practice of law and to enjoy the benefits of being in private practice,” he says. Moreno has certainly given a fair share of his time to public service, with a legal career both traditional and extraordinary. Yet for all of his accomplishments, the road to this successful career in law had many challenges.

Moreno arrived at Yale for his undergraduate studies in the fall of 1966, one of three Latino students in the class. Yale, like most Ivy League colleges at the time, was starting to change—recruiting students from more diverse ethnic and social backgrounds. Moreno fit the bill. But it still wasn’t easy.

“In one sense I felt right at home academically because it was what I was looking for. I was intellectually curious and wanted to get a solid education,” says Moreno, who has helped to recruit minorities for Yale for many years. “At the same time I realized that, notwithstanding all the extra work I had done in high school, Yale was really overwhelming; it was a culture shock … In many ways it was still the old Yale. We had to wear coats and ties to every meal. So there was a certain formality to it.”

But Moreno’s generation was putting pressure on the status quo.

“With the advent of the late ’60s a lot of that started to change. First, Yale got rid of the coat and tie and other rules and then started to talk about admitting women, which was finally done in 1969,” he says.

The son of Mexican immigrants, he was one of five children raised by his mother and uncle in a tight-knit, working-class neighborhood of Los Angeles near Dodger Stadium.

“We didn’t have a lot, but in many ways it was idyllic. Even though I was in what some might consider a fractionalized family, it was very stable. There was always a father figure. We had a lot of extended family in the neighborhood, including many aunts and cousins. There was always food on the table,” he says. “We lived in a small valley surrounded on three sides by hills and a huge park where a mom could let her kids go off as we did and hike or ride our bikes in the park and just be gone all day.”

He ran track and field and tried football—but that wasn’t his game. “I went out for football once with some guys I knew. And they were putting the diagram of plays on the wall and I said, ‘Oh, my God, I can’t figure this out.’ So I just went to one or two meetings and then when practice was scheduled over the hot summer, I said no way.”

Moreno was in student government, but speech and drama were his passions. The drama teacher became a mentor and introduced him to theater and opera.

“That’s really what impelled me to think beyond my immediate surroundings,” he says. “Going to the theater expanded my horizons outside the confines of my high school and neighborhood.”

He did well in high school and was 
encouraged by his teachers to apply to Yale. “The biggest influences in my life were teachers,” he says. “I was never told by anybody that I couldn’t aspire to be someone significant. I was encouraged to believe that I could be anything I wanted to be.”

Once at Yale, he became active—
organizing the first Latino student organization and participating in civil rights demonstrations on campus.

“The country was changing and we made our demands for more enrollment of minorities and hiring of minority faculty. We got travel funds to go out to different cities across the country to recruit promising minorities. We wanted more diversity in the curriculum. We made the typical demands of a group seeking to 
establish its identity in a place like Yale,” he says.

He had one non-white teacher, Professor Rudy Alvarez, who became a mentor and friend. “He and his wife taught us how to cook. After a trip home, the other Latino kids and I would bring back our favorite ethnic foods, tortillas and chorizo, and go to his house to cook up a feast.”

Moreno graduated with a degree in political science and returned to Los 
Angeles to a job in the county’s social services department. After a brief stint at Harvard Business School, he decided to apply to law school.

Coming to Stanford Law School was “like a breath of fresh air” compared with Yale and Harvard.

“It was friendly and open and way ahead of the curve on diversity,” he says. “Thelton Henderson admitted me. Our class already had close to 10 percent 
Latinos and probably 25 percent women. 
Bill Gould and Barbara Babcock were on the faculty while I was a student.”

Moreno joined the small but growing Stanford Latino Law Students Association and found a community within a community. Soon he was putting his Yale cooking skills to good use at Stanford. “Whenever students were feeling down or homesick, Carlos would take them to the kitchen in Crothers Hall and cook a Mexican meal,” says Fred Alvarez, JD ’75 (BA ’72), now a partner at Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati. Moreno joined Alvarez in forming a Mexican folk music band, a sort of mariachi group. “Carlos loves Mexican music, and he’s got a good voice. He sang, I played the charango. We had an accordion player, and maracas—and lots of guitars. We performed at Dinkelspiel and at events. It was a wonderful reality check for us, to lift ourselves out of the 1L study fog.”

Moreno participated in the Community Law Project and also joined the Latino Law Students Association staffing a legal aid group in Mountain View. “We staffed it once a week and got funding from the university to staff it during the summer. That was another nice thing about Stanford; it would actually fund student initiatives like that one,” Moreno says.

After graduating from Stanford Law, Moreno began his legal career as a 
deputy city attorney with the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office, prosecuting criminal and civil consumer protection cases and handling politically sensitive and legislative matters as special counsel to the city attorney.

“The city attorney recruited nationally and had a great training program. I call it the ‘golden age’ of the city attorney’s office and the municipal court where we all practiced,” he says, noting that current budget cuts have decimated opportunities there for new attorneys.

He was good at his job, too. One of the judges he often went before—Judge Elwood Lui (now in private practice with Jones Day)—was impressed.

“I noticed how warm Carlos was, the juries just loved him,” says Lui. “He was a very good trial lawyer. I don’t think he ever lost a case.” In fact, Lui was so impressed with Moreno that he told his old firm Mori & Ota (now known as Kelley, Drye & Warren LLP) about him, and they offered him a position. Moreno joined the firm in 1979 and represented institutional clients in the firm’s general commercial litigation practice.

While Moreno had a strong commitment to public service, volunteering in his community and taking on pro bono cases, he didn’t decide to become a judge until he’d been practicing law for close to 10 years.

“I’m amazed when people like 
Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan say they always wanted to be a judge,” he says. “I never had that early aspiration.”

His former Stanford Law classmate wasn’t surprised though when Moreno decided on that path.

“Carlos did have real leadership qualities, even back then,” says Alvarez. “He was a kind of empowering personality in our group, not competitive but supportive. He took care of people. He was very nurturing and positive. We were very fond of him.”

And he was focused.

“He was always a man with a mission—very clear that he would go back to his community and do something positive,” says Alvarez. “When he went onto the bench, I thought ‘this makes sense, there he goes, he’s off.’ ”

But a judicial appointment is a political appointment, and Moreno had to work the phone to help make it happen. “You reach back and you go through what used to be called a Rolodex to see who can help you get recommendations and get the attention of the governor somehow,” he says. “I called colleagues from the city attorney’s office, people at my firm, even an old high school friend.”

He also called on Lui, who happily obliged him by writing a recommendation. “Elwood was a mentor. He has shepherded my judicial career all along,” says Moreno.

And so Moreno’s career on the bench began in the fall of 1986, when Governor George Deukmejian took notice of the dozens of calls and letters supporting Moreno—and his strong qualifications and impressive education. Moreno was appointed to the Municipal Court, Compton Judicial District, where he handled general criminal matters and supervised the court’s civil department. In October 1993, Governor Pete Wilson elevated Moreno to the Los Angeles County Superior Court, where he presided over felony trials in downtown Los Angeles. In 1997 President Bill Clinton nominated him to the federal bench, but the vote stalled.

“I ran into Carlos in downtown L.A. and he told me the nomination couldn’t get out of committee,” recalls Lui. “I said I’d make some calls.” Soon after the nomination went to a vote, and Moreno was unanimously confirmed to the United States District Court for the Central District of California by the United States Senate. He served as a federal district court judge for more than three years, presiding over a broad range of complex civil and criminal matters. Moreno was then nominated to the California Supreme Court by Governor Gray Davis. He was sworn in as an associate justice in 2001 and served for 10 years.

“He very quickly became an intellectual leader on the court, much faster than I expected,” says Alvarez. “He was writing opinions, many on employment law, which I follow, very important ones and very soon after joining the court.”

“He brought the unique perspective of someone who had served on the federal bench and could understand better than most the interplay between the two systems,” says former California Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald M. George, JD ’64, who served with Moreno for 10 years. “He also brought with him the 
effects on real parties, his views going beyond the parties involved in a specific case.”

“He was a liberal conscience for the court,” says Lui. “His participation in the gay marriage case will be what he is 
remembered for, as will all of the 
members of that historic court. But he also had a big impact on consumer rights cases and individual rights cases.”

Moreno’s impact on California goes beyond that one vote though. “I had three cases assigned to me that dealt with the rights of non-birth mothers. And I had a case that dealt with a country club’s refusal to extend family membership to domestic partners. I’m very proud of these cases because they were so cutting edge,” he says. “Some of the individuals involved in these cases have seen me at events and have come up to say hello and to thank me. It’s tremendously gratifying.”

Though a Democrat and liberal in his views, Moreno was also willing to compromise with his colleagues on the court.

“I cannot imagine a more collegial justice to serve with than Justice Moreno,” says George. “He was always willing to look at other approaches and to be flexible, wanting to come to a consensus.”

And despite the demands of the court’s workload, Moreno made time for volunteer service. He has served as president of the Mexican American Bar Association and as a member of the California Judges Association. He has served on the board of visitors of Stanford Law School and the board of governors of the Association of Yale Alumni. He is currently a director of the Arroyo Vista Family Health Center and two nonprofit legal aid organizations.

“He was very quick to agree and volunteer to undertake speaking engagements on behalf of the court,” says George. “And he did a wonderful job chairing the Blue Ribbon Commission on Children in Foster Care and co-chairing the Child Welfare Council.”

“One part of his legacy that people don’t hear about is his tireless support for diversity and access to justice. He was like a walking ATM for many groups,” says Alvarez. “If Carlos agreed to speak at a lunch for the Legal Aid Society or the Latino Bar Association, they’d be guaranteed a successful event. People loved him and attended those fundraisers. And he was very generous with his time.”

Alvarez also shared that his old friend had just been confirmed as a 2012 recipient of the American Bar Association’s “Spirit of Excellence” award, in recognition of his efforts to promote diversity in the legal profession.

After several months of retirement from the bench, Moreno is enjoying spending more time with his wife and three children (his son is now studying law too). He’s also enjoying legal practice.

“I find that my experience on both the trial and appellate courts really informs a lot of the issues that I’m dealing with now. I can give my insights into the process, insights into judges, insights into how the courts operate. That’s valuable to the firm,” he says.

While his time on the bench eventually had to come to an end, the effects of his opinions will be long term.

“The wonderful thing about the court is that you get the chance to decide cases that are at the forefront of the development of law. And that is a privilege,” says Moreno. “And I can’t imagine a better diet of cases to have worked on than the ones I saw.” SL