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State High Court Justice Panelli May Retire


SAN FRANCISCO — California Supreme Court Justice Edward A. Panelli said Thursday he is strongly considering retiring but will not announce a decision until early September.

In an interview with The Times in his spacious court office here, the affable Deukmejian appointee described much of his job as an unrelenting grind that leaves little time for family or recreation.

Though he is leaning toward retirement, Panelli said he wants to mull it over more before deciding whether to leave his prestigious post.

"My wife keeps asking, 'Are you sure? Are you sure?' " said the 61-year-old justice, the second Italian-American to serve on the court.

The departure of the eight-year high court veteran would give Gov. Pete Wilson a second appointment to the court, five of whose seven members were appointed by former Republican Gov. George Deukmejian.

Analysts say Wilson probably would be under strong pressure to appoint a minority. Justice Joyce Kennard, who is part Indonesian, is the only minority on the court. Wilson's only appointment is Justice Ronald M. George.

Two of Panelli's staff members are leaving the court in September, the reason the justice has given himself a deadline for deciding whether to retire. He said he would like to let his successor appoint their replacements should he go.

"Maybe because of what is happening here with my staff, this should be the time to do it," he said.

Panelli usually votes with the court's four other conservatives, and analysts say his departure would not significantly affect the balance of the court.

But Gerald Uelmen, dean of the Santa Clara University School of Law, called Panelli "part of the glue that keeps a collegial court."

"He is a very personable man," said Uelmen, who follows the court closely. "Nobody dislikes the man. And I think he helps to kind of maintain the gentility of the court."

The court has undergone substantial turnover in the past several years, and Panelli's retirement would "unsettle things a bit" again, Uelmen said.

But Panelli noted it has been almost two years since former Justice Allen Broussard retired, and "I think everybody is pretty well in place."

A judge for almost 22 years, Panelli finds the high court consuming. He works from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. without a lunch break and resumes his court reading at home from 7:45 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.

To keep up with the court's voluminous caseload, he also works on weekends and during vacation, reading cases even while traveling abroad.

"When a trial judge flips out the light in the courtroom, everything stops," he said. Not so with a Supreme Court justice. "The conveyor belt still brings cases."

The worst drudgery is deciding "week after week after week" which appeals the court should hear, a task that requires each of the justices to become familiar with as many as 140 new cases each week. The court decides to review only a small number of them.

"The most fun," said Panelli, "is writing opinions."

To save two hours a day in commute time to and from his home in Saratoga, a woodsy community near San Jose, Panelli stays in a San Francisco apartment from Sunday through Thursday. He said his wife tries to join him, but she now spends considerable time with her mother, who has Alzheimer's disease and lives half a block from their home.

Showing a photograph of himself shortly after he joined the court, the slender, blue-eyed, bespectacled Panelli joked: "See what the job has done to me." His dark hair has turned gray and receded more since his first days on the court.

Panelli became eligible to retire at 75% of his pay a year ago. He notes that he is working for only 11% of his pay now--the difference between what he would earn if he retired and his current compensation. Eight percent of his $121,207-a-year salary still goes to the retirement system.

"I don't think that anybody necessarily should stay in these positions for an indefinite period of time," he said, "and I think it is good to get people with different perspectives on things."

Chief Justice Malcolm Lucas, referred to by the other justices as "The Chief," has urged Panelli to stay on. If he were to continue, Panelli said he would remain on the court until his 12-year term expires in 2002.

Although the court work gets repetitive, its importance and its widespread impact on Californians still "pumps the adrenalin" for him. He also would miss the court's camaraderie.'

His retirement decision is particularly anguishing because he said he feels "responsible to pay back" society for what it has given him.

Born to poor Italian immigrants, Panelli could not speak English when he entered kindergarten and grew up in Santa Clara with the sense that he should contribute positively to the Italian-American image.

"My parents were very concerned with the image of the Italian-Americans," he said. "Those were the Mafia days."

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