California Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald George announced Wednesday he will not seek re-election this fall, sending a seismic jolt through the state's legal landscape, and even his fellow Supreme Court justices.
George said he's not interested in private judging, and he's not even thinking about running for public office. He just wants to relax and have fun.
"I have often said there are no greener pastures of employment that pose any attraction to me," George, 70, said in a prepared statement. "But the prospect of leisure time devoted to family, reading and travel is irresistible at this point in my life."
His decision ends 38 years of service on the state's courts, including 19 on the Supreme Court, 14 of those as chief justice. He will leave the court as the third-longest serving chief justice in California history.
"I am absolutely, profoundly and utterly shocked," Oakland, Calif., appellate specialist Jon Eisenberg said. "I expected he would be there for the rest of my life."
San Francisco Superior Court Presiding Judge James McBride had a similar reaction. "I had the impression he'd go on forever but everybody's got to end it sometime," he said. "He had accomplished so much and he seemed like he had a lot left to do. I think it's a shock to the whole branch."
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has until Sept. 16 under the California Constitution to name George's successor. The chief justice's term will end Jan. 2.
During a one-hour news conference in his San Francisco chambers, George said he had informed his Supreme Court colleagues only Wednesday morning during the court's weekly petition conference.
Asked if they were surprised, he said, "Shocked would be a better word." The announcement "resulted, not apocryphally, in some tearful exchanges," he added.
Justice Joyce Kennard could not be reached and Justices Ming Chin and Carlos Moreno didn't return calls seeking comment.
George said he'd made the decision last weekend on a family trip to Lake Tahoe. Thoughts about cutting back on his workload by half or even a third had crossed his mind. "But I'm not capable of doing that," he said, adding that he puts his heart into his work, all or none.
The chief denied that his decision was motivated by the burdens of recent years, be they budgetary constrictions caused by the faltering economy or lower-court judges challenging the power of the Judicial Council, over which George presides.
He pointed out that the courts recently stopped taking one-day furloughs each month and the judicial branch now has a solid budget to work with.
"If I thought the ranks of the judiciary were in disarray," he said, "that would be an incentive for me to stay."
George referred to dissent in the ranks as "minor problems" that had no effect on his decision. "That would be like canceling a trip to Yosemite because you heard there were ants on the trail," he said.
George was appointed to the court in 1991 by Gov. Pete Wilson and elevated to chief justice by him in 1996. As chief justice he has steered a moderate course, generally siding with the government in criminal cases but often taking a more liberal stance on social issues.
He has written hundreds, if not thousands, of rulings over the years, but may ultimately be best remembered for two -- In re Marriage Cases, 43 Cal.4th 757, in which a 4-3 majority in 2008 declared laws banning same-sex marriage unconstitutional, and Strauss v. Horton, 46 Cal.4th 364, in which George led a 6-1 majority upholding Proposition 8, which placed a constitutional ban on such marriages.
George didn't discuss the merits of those rulings Wednesday, but said they -- as well as a 2004 ruling that said the city of San Francisco had overstepped its bounds by performing gay marriages -- illustrate the "limits of government power."
George said that while there are some people who would like to do away with the initiative system, he isn't one of them. But he ventured that it's "more extreme than any other" state's and makes it "far too easy to amend our Constitution."
George also made political waves at the start of his tenure as chief, when the court decided to reconsider a decision upholding a law that required minors to obtain parental consent for abortions. With two new justices on the court, George then led a 4-3 majority striking down the law. The decision generated some opposition from religious groups to his confirmation as chief justice, but he fought back forcefully and wound up winning retention handily.
Beyond his work on cases, George has been widely recognized as one of the most able administrators to sit in the chief's seat. He helped mastermind moves like merging the superior and municipal courts, consolidating trial court funding with the state rather than with the 58 separate counties, and transferring the ownership of 533 courthouses to the state under judicial branch management.
"He has not only been the court's pivot," said Daniel Kolkey, a partner and appellate specialist in Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher's San Francisco office, "but his innovative administrative leadership has reshaped the judicial branch for generations to come."
He's also received plaudits for working cooperatively with the federal courts. Vaughn Walker, chief judge of the Northern District of California, noted that just last week the two collaborated on ensuring the safety of court employees in Oakland for the recent Johannes Mehserle verdict.
"I called him on a Wednesday on that matter, and he was in his usual Wednesday conference," Walker said. "He got back to me immediately and put me in touch with the right people."
FILLING THE VACANCY
George made his announcement Wednesday because the filing deadline to seek retention is Aug. 16. His term and those of Justices Chin and Moreno end Jan. 2, 2011.
The new chief must be confirmed by the Commission on Judicial Performance and stand for retention this November.
George sits on the commission -- along with Attorney General (and gubernatorial candidate) Jerry Brown and Second District Court of Appeal Justice Joan Dempsey Klein -- so George would be in the position of approving his own successor.
George said the impending change in governors had no impact on his decision. He wouldn't speculate about any successors, but did say the governor has assured him he'll seek George's input on the choice.
Most attorneys contacted by The Recorder Wednesday wouldn't speculate about whether Schwarzenegger would go outside the Supreme Court for a chief justice or elevate one of the six justices now on it.
"Today is not the day to be thinking about who would replace [George]," J. Clark Kelso, a professor with University of the Pacific's McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento, said. "It's a day to reflect on his accomplishments and wish him well."
Nonetheless, Eisenberg -- who correctly predicted in 2005 that Schwarzenegger would name Justice Carol Corrigan to the court -- said he doubts the governor will reach outside the six justices now on the court.
"That doesn't strike me as being Schwarzenegger's style," he said.
Corrigan's a possibility for chief, he said, because she's the governor's only appointee on the high court bench now. Otherwise, Eisenberg said, it's hard to say who would even want the job.
"It's an old bench, not in chronological age," he said, "but in length of service."
Moreno, 61, has been there since 2001; Chin, 67, since 1996; Justice Kathryn Mickle Werdegar, 74, since 1994; Justice Marvin Baxter, 70, since 1991; and Kennard, 69, since 1989.
George, meanwhile, seemed as if he could go on forever.
"It took me by surprise, but I must say, to me he's timeless," said 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Chief Judge Alex Kozinski. "He has a huge amount of energy, and he looks the same today as he did 30 years ago when I first saw him."