Northern District Chief Judge Vaughn Walker announced Wednesday he will step down as chief judge at the end of the year and that he will leave the court in February.
After two decades on the federal bench, Walker said he wants to return to the private sector. That means if the landmark same-sex marriage case tried before him earlier this year is remanded, it would go to a different judge. The case, in which Walker in a sweeping opinion following a lengthy trial found the state's gay-marriage ban unconstitutional, is set to be argued in December at the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Walker didn't indicate in a formal announcement why he's leaving the court altogether instead of taking senior status. An assistant said he was not taking calls Wednesday afternoon.
Fellow Northern District Judge Charles Breyer said: "I think he's had an outstanding career as a judge, and I think he's interested in doing other things."
Breyer suspects Walker "wants to have the freedom of making choices in terms of the type of work he's going to do."
One lawyer who knows Walker suggested money could be a factor.
"Some judges leave the bench for financial reasons, given the failure of Congress to maintain judicial salaries reasonably," said Edward Reines, a partner at Silicon Valley's Weil Gotshal & Manges, who added that the judge's "integrity, independence and intellect will be sorely missed."
"I'm confident he will put all those qualities to good use in his future endeavors." Reines said.
Walker has served as chief judge of the court since September 2004, and has been on the bench since 1990.
San Jose District Judge James Ware is next in line to become the district's chief judge.