California Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald George announced in San Francisco today he will retire in January after 14 years in the post, giving Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger what could be his final opportunity to appoint a successor to the high court.
George, 70, said he plans to devote his time to family, reading and travel. He said reflection after his birthday in March caused him to decide to step down now, "while I am at the top of my game."
George has been a judge for 38 years, starting with Los Angeles Municipal Court. He was appointed to the state Supreme Court in 1991 and then to the chief justice post in 1996 by Gov. Pete Wilson. As chief justice, he also chaired the state Judicial Council, the governing body of the California court system. The system is one of the largest in the world, with more than 1,700 judges and a $4 billion budget.
The dual tasks of being a judge and administrator pose a demanding schedule that "does seem (to occupy) almost every waking hour," George told a group of reporters in his chambers at the State Building in San Francisco.
George will retire on Jan. 2, the date his current 12-year term ends. His decision means that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger will appoint his successor.
The state Constitution requires Schwarzenegger to nominate a replacement by Sept. 16, and the successor must be confirmed by the state Commission on Judicial Appointments and approved by voters in the Nov. 2 election.
Schwarzenegger issued a statement thanking George for his service and saying he and his staff will begin working immediately to find a successor.
"I want to express my sincere gratitude to Chief Justice George for his 38 years of dedicated service to the state of California," Schwarzenegger said. "Over the course of his career, he has shown tremendous commitment to justice with extraordinary dedication to upholding impartiality under the law."
Among other high court rulings, George wrote the decision in which the panel voted 4-3 in May 2008 that the California Constitution provided a right to same-sex marriage.
A year later, he was the author of a 6-1 decision that upheld Proposition 8, a voter-approved state constitutional amendment that banned same-sex marriage. A federal constitutional challenge to Proposition 8 is now pending in U.S. District Court in San Francisco.
Asked about his legacy, George said, "I'd like to think of it as being equally split" between his decisions as a judge and administrative reforms he oversaw in the court system during the past 14 years.
Those changes, carried out with the Legislature, included having the state rather than counties fund the 58 county superior courts; combining municipal and superior courts; and having the state take over ownership and repair responsibility for courthouses.
George also led initiatives to improve jury service procedures, foster care, and access to the courts for people acting as their own lawyers.
Santa Clara University law professor Gerald Uelmen, who specializes in studying the state Supreme Court, said George's "chief contribution is as an administrator of the courts."
"I think he will rank as one of the best," Uelmen said.
Uelmen called the announcement a surprise, saying, "The timing is especially interesting because the successor will be an appointment by Gov. Schwarzenegger."
He said Schwarzenegger might consider elevating one of the court's associate justices, such as Carol Corrigan, 61, who was named to the panel by Schwarzenegger in 2005, or Ming Chin, 67, appointed by Wilson in 1996.
George declined to speculate on his successor but noted that the administrative part of the job "is obviously a very serious component."
He said Schwarzenegger, whom he informed of his decision Wednesday morning, said he would like to confer with George.
"I'll be happy to share my thoughts with him when that comes," George said.
During the past year, George faced the state budget crisis, which caused all state courts to close one day per month from September through June, and a massive backlog in death penalty cases.
The California Constitution requires death penalty appeals to go directly from trial courts to the state high court, which has yet to rule on the cases of more than 400 of the 700 inmates on death row. George, who reiterated today that he considers the system dysfunctional, has suggested an amendment to allow the intermediate state Court of Appeal to handle some cases.
But George said he is not retiring because of frustrations. He said he might have stayed if court budget problems had not been alleviated by additional funding planned by the Legislature and Schwarzenegger.
"The court system is not in the dire straits of two months ago," George said. "I've welcomed the challenges, and they have not caused me to leave."
George, a Republican, was named to Los Angeles Municipal Court by former Gov. Ronald Reagan in 1972, to Los Angeles Superior Court by former Gov. Jerry Brown in 1977,and to the state Court of Appeal by former Gov. George Deukmejian in 1987. Before becoming a judge, he served as a deputy state attorney general for seven years.
The state commission that will confirm his successor will be made up of George as chief justice, Brown as attorney general and Joan Dempsey Klein as the state's senior Court of Appeal presiding justice.