Retiring California Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald George wrote many important legal decisions in his 38 years as a state judge, including the document that briefly legalized gay marriage in the state.
But George the politician was just as talented
Even now, serving out his term as a lame duck, he still wields immense political clout in choosing his successor.
George chairs the obscure three-member Commission on Judicial Appointments, which has veto power over the governor's nominee. Attorney General Jerry Brown, the Democratic nominee for governor, and Court of Appeal Justice Joan Dempsey Klein are the two other members.
A registered Republican, George is also a close political ally of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who is expected to listen closely to George's advice in naming his successor. George declined to discuss any particular candidates he may be recommending, but he said he's advising Schwarzenegger to choose a replacement with superior legal scholarship, administrative experience and political skills.
The governor has a pool of 1,700 sitting judges and tens of thousands of California lawyers from which to find the state's 28th chief justice. But court watchers said it will still be difficult to find someone with George's unique blend of legal scholarship and political savvy.
"He was a master, no doubt," said Joe Mathews, a scholar with the New America Foundation.
George announced Wednesday he would step down Jan. 2. George said the job seemed to consume nearly every waking hour and that he wanted to enjoy reading, traveling and spending time with his family while he was still healthy.
George, 70, was first appointed to the bench by Gov. Ronald Reagan in 1972 and received four more promotions from governors Jerry Brown, George Deukmejian and Pete Wilson.
When Gov. Wilson appointed George chief justice in 1991, the relationship between the Supreme Court and the Legislature was strained.
Ten years earlier, voters ousted Chief Justice Rose Bird and two other colleagues from the court over their many rejections of death sentences. Lawmakers capitalized on the court's perceived political weaknesses and largely ignored the government's third branch for the next 10 years. George has said that many lawmakers at the time regarded his office as a mere state agency rather than an equal branch of government.
When George took over, he immediately set out to restore the court's image.
"He worked hard to make friends on both sides of the aisle," said Santa Clara University law professor Gerald Uelmen.
George said Wednesday that when he leaves office Jan. 2 he does so with the satisfaction that the California court system has the respect of the Legislature and governor as a coequal branch of government.
"The chief justice will not only leave a proud legal legacy, he also will be rightfully regarded as one of the most effective advocates for the judiciary and the principle of respect for the law," said Senate Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, a Democrat.
In his 14 years as chief justice, George has wrested control of the courts from the 58 counties, found billions of dollars for new courthouses even in the direst of financial times and could kill displeasing court-related legislation with a few well-placed visits to Sacramento.
George said he worked to transfer the courts' control from the counties to the state to ensure consistent and equitable budgets for the entire judiciary, removing budgetary decision from each county's Board of Supervisors with passage of the historic Lockyer-Isenberg Trial Court Funding Act of 1997.
Along the way, some of the Los Angeles judges derisively dubbed him "King George" for spearheading the takeover and critics remain today. More than 200 hundred judges last year joined the Alliance of California Judges, which seeks to restore more control of the courts back to the counties.
"We have a concern that control has become out of balance," said Kern County Superior Court Judge David Lampe. "Lockyer-Isenberg was not intended to supplant local court management."
The alliance takes particular umbrage at the 70 percent growth rate since 2004 to 900 employees of the Administrative Office of the Courts, which controls the courts $4.4 billion annual budget and is managed by the 28-member Judicial Council.
George chairs the council and appoints most members of the council, which voted last year to shut down every court one day a month to cut costs. The alliance members bristled at this order, arguing that some county courts had the financial wherewithal to remain open. Further, they criticized George's support of a new $1.3 billion statewide computer system few alliance members say is necessary during tight financial times.
"There was a question of priority," Lampe said. "There was some sentiment that it was imposed from the top down and now must be borne by all."
Last month, Schwarzenegger restored $100 million in previously proposed cuts to the courts in his proposed budget for next year, ending the court closures.
George shrugs off the criticism as part of the job and that the complaints had nothing to do with retiring from a job he said he loved. He said to quit because of the political flack would be akin to "canceling a trip to Yosemite because there are ants on the trail."