March 5, 2009: California Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald George speaks during arguments in San Francisco on the constitutionality of the state's voter-approved Proposition 8 that bans same-sex unions.
Ron George, the chief justice of the California Supreme Court, may be the most powerful California public official that most Californians have never heard of. But they knew his work, most memorably his decision to legalize same-sex marriage, a decision that was effectively overturned by voters with Prop 8.
He announced his retirement Wednesday, creating a vacancy at the high court at a very interesting time.
Too interesting if you're a fan of Jerry Brown, the Democratic gubernatorial nominee. George's retirement is likely to focus some public attention on the state supreme court and what the chief justice does, with Gov. Schwarzenegger having to decide who to nominate as George's successor. (He has until Sept. 16 to name someone). And that, in turn, could bring more attention to one of the most controversial decisions of Brown's first governorship: his appointment of Rose Bird as chief justice.
Bird was a path-breaking, progressive lawyer who had never been a judge when Brown nominated her for chief justice. A series of liberal decisions she issued on the environment and consumer legislation soon made her a lightning rod. But it was her opposition to the death penalty that ended her judicial career. California voters removed her and two other Brown-appointed justices in 1986.
Brown's appointment of Rose Bird was a political liability for him then, and he remains a source of dispute among those who still remember the controversy. Even some former Brown allies have called the appointment of Bird politically reckless. It would hardly be surprising if Meg Whitman's campaign piggybacked on the conversation about the California Supreme Court to re-introduce the Rose Bird story to Californians who have either forgotten it or are too old to remember.
AN IMPORTANT NOTE TO ADD: Brown, as attorney general, serves on the three-person commission that confirms judicial appointments.