Faced with the self-assigned task of writing the California Supreme Court's first ruling on gay marriage, Chief Justice Ronald M. George drafted an opinion in early 2008 with two different endings. One gave same-sex couples the right to marry. The other didn't. Then he asked the six associate justices for reaction.
FOR THE RECORD:
Ronald George: An article in the Dec. 30 Section A about retiring Chief Justice Ronald M. George of the California Supreme Court incorrectly referred to the "late" Sargent Shriver. Shriver, the father-in-law of former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, is alive. —
George soon learned that his colleagues were split 3 to 3. His vote would decide the most burning civil rights question of the day.
George's handling of the marriage case was emblematic of his tenure as California's 27th chief justice. He was a centrist, the tie-breaker on the state high court, but also willing to put his reputation on the line and do the unpredictable.
When he steps down on midnight, Jan. 2, after four decades as a pivotal player in California law, George will leave behind a court system that is vastly different from the one he inherited. Law professors and others expect him to have an enduring legacy.
"He was the most extraordinary leader of the Supreme Court in modern history," said Treasurer Bill Lockyer, a Democrat and former legislator and attorney general.
George, 70, took big risks as head of the California judiciary, consolidating courts and bringing them under his authority to turn the judicial branch into a single, independent force. He created self-help services for people who could not afford lawyers. He insisted that courts have interpreters for the non-English speaking. He wrote a 1996 abortion ruling that triggered a campaign to unseat him.
But the moderate Republican jurist was legally cautious, disinclined to take the law to new places. He was what one law professor called "a tinkerer." The mostly Republican, relatively conservative court he headed is widely considered one of the most influential state Supreme Courts in the country, but was not known for innovative legal thinking.
As a jurist George moved the court closer to the middle and stressed compromise. The dissent rate under George plummeted. His rulings were sound but rarely soared, scholars said.
"He brought a lot of brainpower and political savvy to the position of chief justice," said Golden Gate Law School professor Peter Keane.
George grew up in Beverly Hills, the son of a Hungarian immigrant mother and French immigrant father. He was groomed for foreign affairs, but eventually decided international diplomacy was not for him. Law school at Stanford University was a fall-back position. He wasn't sure what he wanted to do with his life.
He chose to practice law in government, eschewing the vastly higher pay of the private sector. He became a deputy attorney general, arguing before the U.S. Supreme Court, a trial judge in Los Angeles County, an appeals court judge and finally an associate justice of the California Supreme Court. Former Gov. Pete Wilson elevated him to chief justice in 1996.
Shortly after being elevated, the new chief justice went on the road, a state map and a yellow marker in his back pocket. He inspected the courts in all 58 counties and discovered that some were teetering.
He met a judge whose chambers was a converted broom closet. He found jurors sharing an entrance with manacled prisoners. He once had to cut a quick check to keep a courthouse from closing.
Armed with his findings, he lobbied for and won state approval of a vast restructuring of the judiciary. More than 200 municipal and superior courts were merged into a single trial court system, and 532 courthouses went from county to judicial-branch ownership.
George said justice should be equal from county to county. He wanted uniform policies and practices, and he figured the judiciary would have more clout in Sacramento if it spoke with one voice.
Legal analysts consider the consolidation of the courts a historic achievement. George has received national recognition and awards for his work.
"It is a much more efficient system," said Santa Clara University law professor Gerald Uelmen, an analyst of California courts. "I think he will rank up there … as one of the most effective administrators the court has ever had."
George's critics, however, saw a power grab. The Administrative Office of the Courts, which now runs the court system, rapidly grew. Some trial judges resented the loss of independence and derided the ballooning bureaucracy as wasteful. They dubbed him "King George."
A group of dissenters formed the Alliance of California Judges. The membership is confidential, but the directors claim that more than 200 of the state's 1,700 judges belong.