Supreme Court Justice Marvin R. Baxter announced Wednesday that he will retire at the end of his current term in January, opening the way for a more liberal majority on the state's highest court.
Baxter's departure will give Gov. Jerry Brown, if reelected, three seats on the seven-member court, which for decades has had only one Democrat. Brown appointed Justice Goodwin Liu earlier this term and has yet to fill a vacancy created by the departure of Justice Joyce L. Kennard in April.
Brown's appointees, along with Justice Kathryn Mickle Werdegar, a moderate Republican appointee, could form a new majority in contentious cases.
"This is a game changer," said Santa Clara University law professor Gerald F. Uelmen, an expert on the court. "I think it is going to have a significant impact."
The court now has no Latino or African American, and Brown could change that all at once.
Baxter, 74, a native of Fresno County, is considered the most conservative member of the court. He has long been counted as a reliable vote for prosecutors and business, but he is not viewed as an activist. His rulings tend to be limited to the issues at hand, and he does not reach out to broaden their scope. He also is regarded as a procedural stickler who relies on the plain meaning of the laws.
Known within the court as a consummate gentleman, Baxter has worked respectfully with colleagues of differing views and has not allowed disagreements to become personal.
"He was the anchor of the conservative wing, very consistent, very predictable, and he was a workhorse," Uelmen said. "He consistently led the court in the production of majority opinions, and his opinions were quite well-crafted."
In an interview, Baxter said he wanted "to open a new chapter" and fill it with family, travel and hobbies, which includes restoring antique cars.
"We have four grandchildren, ages 17, 16, 15, and 14, a senior, a junior, a sophomore and a freshman in high school," Baxter said. "We certainly want to keep in close contact with them. I have offered to be a chaperon, but no takers yet."
Baxter grew up on his family's farm in Fowler, Calif., and began his legal career in 1967 with a two-year stint as a Fresno County prosecutor. He practiced civil law for 13 years before then-Gov. George Deukmejian made him his appointments secretary in 1983.
Deukmejian appointed Baxter to the state Court of Appeal in 1988 and elevated him two years later to the Supreme Court.
Baxter declined to discuss his favorite rulings — "I have really never kept a hit parade of opinions" — or rulings he now wishes he had written differently.
He opposed legalizing same-sex marriage in 2008, and joined five of his colleagues the following year in voting to uphold Proposition 8, the ballot measure that reinstated the marriage ban.
The U.S. Supreme Court has twice rejected Baxter rulings, Uelmen said. In 2006, Baxter wrote a 4-3 decision in People vs. Brendlin, which denied a passenger in a car stopped by police the right to challenge the detention as a violation of search and seizure. The high court later overturned the ruling, concluding the passenger could challenge the stop.
In People vs. Frazer, a 1999 decision that split the court 4 to 3, Baxter wrote that prosecutors could bring charges for child sexual abuse under an extended statute of limitations enacted after the expiration of the original deadline. The U.S. Supreme Court later repudiated that holding.
Among his best rulings, in Uelmen's view, was last year's City of Riverside vs. Inland Empire, which held that the state's medical marijuana law does not prevent local governments from regulating cannabis dispensaries within their boundaries.
"It was so clear," Uelmen said. " It didn't leave any ambiguity, and I think he was right on the law."
Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye said she would miss Baxter's "sage advice" on the court and on the Judicial Council, which sets policy for the statewide court system.
Among the contenders mentioned by judges as possible successors to Kennard and Baxter are Thomas Saenz, the Los Angeles-based president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund; Stanford University law professor Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar; Jeffrey W. Johnson, an African American state appeals court justice; and U.S. District Judges Edward J. Davila and Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers, both Obama appointees.
Other candidates Brown may be eyeing include: Justice Miguel Márquez, a former county counsel Brown appointed to the state appeals court; Elena Duarte, an appeals court justice; Rachel Moran, dean of UCLA School of Law; Kevin Johnson, dean of UC Davis School of Law; and Court of Appeal Justices Martin Jenkins, Maria P. Rivera and Dennis M. Perluss.
If Brown appoints Baxter's successor before Sept. 15, the nominee would go before voters in November for confirmation to a 12-year term.