In a surprise announcement, Justice Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar said today that he will leave the Supreme Court at the end of next month to become president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Justice Cuéllar was nominated to the court by Governor Jerry Brown in July 2014 and Brown swore him in over five months later.  Cuéllar, like three of his current colleagues, had no prior judicial experience.

Cuéllar said in a statement that serving on the court was “a distinction I could not have imagined when I first arrived [in the United States from his native Mexico] as a high school student in the Imperial Valley.”  He further stated, “I will miss the wisdom and generosity of my colleagues as we’ve sought to honor our society’s commitment to impartial justice in a vast and diverse state.  All of us recognize the continual effort and dedication it takes to safeguard freedom, democracy, and the rule of law.”

It’s unknown whether Cuéllar will sit as a pro tem justice after he leaves the court, or even whether — as a private foundation’s president — he is eligible to do so.  If not, the court could be rushed to get out opinions before his retirement in the cases argued last week and to be argued next month (assuming he sits on the October cases).  There was an opinion rush when Justice Carlos Moreno retired 10 years ago without serving as a pro tem.

It’s also unknown when Governor Gavin Newsom will name Cuéllar’s replacement.  Hopefully, soon.  An unfilled vacancy hampers the court because, among other things, the court delays scheduling arguments in cases where the six permanent justices are tentatively evenly divided.  Those delays are appropriate to avoid 4-3 opinions with a pro tem in the majority, opinions which have a cloud hanging over them.

[Update:  Justice Cuéllar’s participation in September and October cases is still to be worked out.]

[Update:  Press coverage includes —

Michael Crowley in the New York Times:  “California Judge Cuéllar to Lead Influential Think Tank

Maura Dolan in the Los Angeles Times:  “California Supreme Court Justice Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar stepping down to head think tank

Bob Egelko in the San Francisco Chronicle:  “Newsom gets state high court justice pick as Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar resigns for think-tank job

Don Thompson for the Associate Press:  “California Supreme Court justice leaving to head think tank.”  [I’m quoted in the article.]

Cheryl Miller in The Recorder:  “Cuéllar to Leave California Supreme Court for International Think Tank

Craig Anderson in the Daily Journal:  “Justice Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar is leaving California Supreme Court“]