Republican Appointee Wrote California Decision Legalizing Same-Sex Marriage

August 12, 2008 - 9:59 AM
Gay Marriage Ruling Secures Chief Justice's Legacy
Republican Appointee Wrote California Decision Legalizing Same-Sex Marriage (image)

The state Supreme Court justice who wrote the 4-3 opinion that declared same-sex marriage a "right" in California was appointed in 1996 by then-Gov. Pete Wilson, a Republican.

San Francisco - California Chief Justice Ronald George has spent more than half his life cultivating an image of a cautious jurist and earning a reputation as a politically skilled court administrator.

But his unlikely legacy as gay rights pioneer was sealed May 15, when he heard the roar of a crowd gathered below his office as his majority decision legalizing same-sex marriage was announced.

Now, the law-and-order supporter of capital punishment is enduring from gay marriage foes the very complaints of "judicial activism" he has worked so hard to avoid during his 17 years on the high court and 34 years as a California judge.

He will likely have to mount an aggressive and expensive campaign to retain his seat in the 2010 election.

"Absolutely, Ron George should be thrown out for voting for gay marriage," said Mike Spence, president of the conservative California Republican Assembly. "He has a very radical view of what's a family."

George makes no apologies for taking the lead on a politically dangerous case.

"I really felt that as chief justice I had to have the broad shoulders because I knew there would be substantial controversy about it," he said in a recent interview.

The landmark decision overturned California's bans on same-sex marriage, extending to sexual orientation the same civil rights protections afforded to race, religion and gender. Decisions by the California Supreme Court are often followed by state courts elsewhere.

Opponents have gathered signatures to put a measure on the November ballot for a constitutional amendment that would again ban gay marriage. George declined to discuss the court decision in detail, citing the measure and the legal challenges expected regardless of the election's outcome.

Until he wrote the 4-3 majority decision, George was more noted for his administrative achievements and political prowess than his court decisions.

Four governors named him five times to higher judicial positions, starting with Ronald Reagan, who appointed him to the Los Angeles County Municipal Court in 1972.

Since 1996, when he was appointed the state's top judge by then-Gov. Pete Wilson, George has worked tirelessly with the Legislature to modernize the state's sprawling court system.

He shifted funding of the system from individual counties to the state, ensuring consistent budgets. He also combined the Byzantine municipal and superior court systems into one unified branch of government.

The marriage opinion surprised the legal community, which widely expected the court to uphold California's gay marriage ban, said Santa Clara University law professor Gerald Uelmen.

"Most people thought his legacy would be the modernization of the courts," Uelmen said. "I think the gay marriage decision will now be his principal legacy."

George began his legal career as a state prosecutor after graduating from Stanford University's law school in 1964. He appeared in 1972 before the U.S. Supreme Court in a futile bid to defend California's death penalty law; capital punishment was legalized five years later.

On the bench, George was noted as a tough-on-crime jurist. As a trial judge in Los Angeles, he refused to let prosecutors dismiss murder charges against "Hillside Strangler" Angelo Buono, who was ultimately convicted on nine counts of murder.

Yet George left hints of what some would call more liberal leanings.

In 1995, as an associate justice, he wrote the high court's majority opinion holding that private country clubs that conduct business with the public must allow women to join.

In 1997, he wrote the decision allowing girls under 18 to undergo abortions without their parents' permission.

The next year, George raised $700,000 to defeat a campaign to unseat him because of that ruling. His opponents raised only $40,000, and the chief justice easily retained his seat with 75 percent of the vote.

California's seven Supreme Court justices must be retained by voters every 12 years.

Political conservatives vow to organize a campaign to oust him because of the gay marriage decision, though they haven't formally started raising money.

Spence said his group and others will formally organize after the November election.

The impeccably mannered George, who rarely displays displeasure in public even when sitting through the weakest of legal arguments in his courtroom, becomes slightly annoyed with the subject of mounting a political campaign.

"I have no idea," he says when asked when he will formally launch his campaign. "It isn't anything that I have given any thought to. I will do what I should do when that time comes about."