Justice Kathryn Werdegar, California State Supreme Court
Justice Kathryn Werdegar, California State Supreme Court (Hillary Jones-Mixon)

SACRAMENTO—Justice Kathryn Mickle Werdegar, a 23-year veteran of the California Supreme Court, announced her retirement Wednesday. Her departure at the end of the term in August will give Gov. Jerry Brown a fourth appointment on the high court, creating a potential voting majority for years to come.

“I have had the privilege of serving with three outstanding Chief Justices and many wonderful colleagues, and the opportunity to address some of the state’s most challenging issues,” Werdegar, 80, said in a prepared statement. “But, it is time for someone else to have that privilege and opportunity. I wish my colleagues, the governor, and my successor well.”

Known for her pointed questions at oral arguments, Werdegar is generally considered a moderate and a clear writer who often held the swing vote when the court was more ideologically split than it is now. She was appointed by Republican Gov. Pete Wilson and clerked for conservative California Supreme Court Justice Edward Panelli. Werdegar has never hewed to a partisan line, observers said.

“She was kind of Kennedy-esque in her role sometimes,” said Reed Smith appellate partner Paul Fogel in San Francisco, who has known Werdegar since their days as senior staff attorneys in the state Supreme Court in the 1980s.

Werdegar was the author for, or concurring vote in, left-leaning opinions that addressed social issues such as gay marriage, discrimination in the Boy Scouts and abortion restrictions. In 2004 she dissented in part from a 5-2 decision invalidating approximately 4,000 marriage licenses issued to same-sex couples in San Francisco. Four years later, she joined the Supreme Court’s 4-3 majority in striking down California’s ban on same-sex marriage.

In 1996, she wrote the opinion prohibiting landlords from refusing to rent to unmarried couples on religious grounds. And in 2006, she led the unanimous court in ruling that the city of Berkeley could withhold public benefits from an affiliate of the Boy Scouts of America because of that group’s discrimination against gays and atheists.

Asked Wednesday which opinions she relished the most in her time on the bench, she said “some of my dissents.”

Werdegar pointed to her opinion, written alone, in Merrill v. Navegar, a case stemming from the mass shooting at 101 California Street in San Francisco in 1993 that left eight dead and six others injured. The majority found that state law prevented victims from suing gun companies for allegedly negligent marketing and distribution of guns. In a 20-page opinion, Werdegar said she could not “accept the majority’s conclusion that plaintiffs are statutorily barred from suing the maker of the semiautomatic assault weapon used to massacre the victims in this case.”

Werdegar “is not one to wither because her brothers and sisters of the robe are not with her,” Fogel said.

A San Francisco native, Werdegar began her legal career as an attorney in the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Justice Department in Washington in 1962. She was an associate justice on the First District Court of Appeal in San Francisco before Republican Wilson named her to the Supreme Court in 1994.

Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye said in a statement, reflecting on Werdegar’s long career in the law: “Her service to the public has been invaluable. She has written many excellent court opinions under three chief justices and has contributed to our collegial court ethos. We will miss her and wish her well in the next chapter to come.”

In a brief interview Wednesday afternoon, Werdegar said there was no pressing reason for her decision to retire, just a feeling that the time was right to “enjoy some freedom.” She said she is “confident that the governor does not need my guidance” in finding a replacement.

“He has given us three wonderful justices that I’ve had the pleasure to serve with,” she said. “Like everyone else, I look forward to seeing whom he selects.”

Brown appointed Goodwin Liu in 2011. Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar and Leondra Kruger took the bench in 2015. All three are Yale Law School graduates in their 40s. None of them had previous experience as a judge, the more traditional pathway to the state high court.

“I was looking for people who you could say were ‘learned in the law’—a phrase you might not hear too much anymore,” Brown told the New York Times in 2014. “I put the word out: Are there people who are scholars or of unusual ability?”

Brown’s appointee to succeed Werdegar will join a high court poised to take an amplified role in the coming years as states—especially California—play a leading role to combat Trump administration policies. Supreme Court observers have speculated for several years that James Humes, presiding justice of the First District Court of Appeal’s Division One, could be a leading candidate for any Supreme Court vacancy.

Humes served as chief deputy during Brown’s tenure as attorney general, and he was the governor’s executive secretary before being appointed to the appellate court in 2012. He would be the first openly gay justice to serve on the state Supreme Court.

Brown’s office offered no clues about the governor’s intentions Wednesday, issuing only a short statement praising Werdegar’s “remarkable career.”

Update: This report was updated with additional comment about Werdegar’s retirement announcement.

SACRAMENTO—Justice Kathryn Mickle Werdegar, a 23-year veteran of the California Supreme Court, announced her retirement Wednesday. Her departure at the end of the term in August will give Gov. Jerry Brown a fourth appointment on the high court, creating a potential voting majority for years to come.

“I have had the privilege of serving with three outstanding Chief Justices and many wonderful colleagues, and the opportunity to address some of the state’s most challenging issues,” Werdegar, 80, said in a prepared statement. “But, it is time for someone else to have that privilege and opportunity. I wish my colleagues, the governor, and my successor well.”

Known for her pointed questions at oral arguments, Werdegar is generally considered a moderate and a clear writer who often held the swing vote when the court was more ideologically split than it is now. She was appointed by Republican Gov. Pete Wilson and clerked for conservative California Supreme Court Justice Edward Panelli. Werdegar has never hewed to a partisan line, observers said.

“She was kind of Kennedy-esque in her role sometimes,” said Reed Smith appellate partner Paul Fogel in San Francisco, who has known Werdegar since their days as senior staff attorneys in the state Supreme Court in the 1980s.

Werdegar was the author for, or concurring vote in, left-leaning opinions that addressed social issues such as gay marriage, discrimination in the Boy Scouts and abortion restrictions. In 2004 she dissented in part from a 5-2 decision invalidating approximately 4,000 marriage licenses issued to same-sex couples in San Francisco. Four years later, she joined the Supreme Court’s 4-3 majority in striking down California’s ban on same-sex marriage.

In 1996, she wrote the opinion prohibiting landlords from refusing to rent to unmarried couples on religious grounds. And in 2006, she led the unanimous court in ruling that the city of Berkeley could withhold public benefits from an affiliate of the Boy Scouts of America because of that group’s discrimination against gays and atheists.

Asked Wednesday which opinions she relished the most in her time on the bench, she said “some of my dissents.”

Werdegar pointed to her opinion, written alone, in Merrill v. Navegar, a case stemming from the mass shooting at 101 California Street in San Francisco in 1993 that left eight dead and six others injured. The majority found that state law prevented victims from suing gun companies for allegedly negligent marketing and distribution of guns. In a 20-page opinion, Werdegar said she could not “accept the majority’s conclusion that plaintiffs are statutorily barred from suing the maker of the semiautomatic assault weapon used to massacre the victims in this case.”

Werdegar “is not one to wither because her brothers and sisters of the robe are not with her,” Fogel said.

A San Francisco native, Werdegar began her legal career as an attorney in the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Justice Department in Washington in 1962. She was an associate justice on the First District Court of Appeal in San Francisco before Republican Wilson named her to the Supreme Court in 1994.

Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye said in a statement, reflecting on Werdegar’s long career in the law: “Her service to the public has been invaluable. She has written many excellent court opinions under three chief justices and has contributed to our collegial court ethos. We will miss her and wish her well in the next chapter to come.”

In a brief interview Wednesday afternoon, Werdegar said there was no pressing reason for her decision to retire, just a feeling that the time was right to “enjoy some freedom.” She said she is “confident that the governor does not need my guidance” in finding a replacement.

“He has given us three wonderful justices that I’ve had the pleasure to serve with,” she said. “Like everyone else, I look forward to seeing whom he selects.”

Brown appointed Goodwin Liu in 2011. Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar and Leondra Kruger took the bench in 2015. All three are Yale Law School graduates in their 40s. None of them had previous experience as a judge, the more traditional pathway to the state high court.

“I was looking for people who you could say were ‘learned in the law’—a phrase you might not hear too much anymore,” Brown told the New York Times in 2014. “I put the word out: Are there people who are scholars or of unusual ability?”

Brown’s appointee to succeed Werdegar will join a high court poised to take an amplified role in the coming years as states—especially California—play a leading role to combat Trump administration policies. Supreme Court observers have speculated for several years that James Humes, presiding justice of the First District Court of Appeal’s Division One, could be a leading candidate for any Supreme Court vacancy.

Humes served as chief deputy during Brown’s tenure as attorney general, and he was the governor’s executive secretary before being appointed to the appellate court in 2012. He would be the first openly gay justice to serve on the state Supreme Court.

Brown’s office offered no clues about the governor’s intentions Wednesday, issuing only a short statement praising Werdegar’s “remarkable career.”

Update: This report was updated with additional comment about Werdegar’s retirement announcement.