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State Supreme Court Justice Kathryn Werdegar will retire, giving Gov. Jerry Brown a decisive pick on the powerful panel

California Supreme Court Justice Kathryn Werdegar (Jeff Chiu / Associated Press)
California Supreme Court Justice Kathryn Werdegar (Jeff Chiu / Associated Press)

The longest-serving member of the California Supreme Court, Justice Kathryn Werdegar, said on Wednesday that she will retire this summer, giving Gov. Jerry Brown the chance to select his fourth member of the panel in six years.

Werdegar, who turns 81 next month, was appointed by Gov. Pete Wilson in 1994. The official announcement from court officials said that she will step down on Aug. 31.

"It has been a great privilege and honor to serve the people of California as an associate justice of the California Supreme Court for 23 years," Werdergar said in a written statement. "But it is time for someone else to have that privilege and opportunity."

Viewed as a centrist jurist by many observers, Werdegar was a decisive voice in a 1996 case that ruled landlords can't refuse to rent to unmarried couples . She also voted with the majority in 2008 to outlaw existing bans on same-sex marriages — a case that sparked the initiative banning such marriages, Proposition 8.

Her​​​​​​ retirement means that Brown now gets to select a justice who could be the potentially decisive vote on the seven-member panel.

"You might be reaching a critical mass," said Vikram Amar, dean of the University of Illinois College of Law who was previously a longtime California legal scholar.

Brown is no stranger to casting a long shadow on the state's highest court, having appointed five members by the time he left the governor's office in 1983. Three of those justices, including former Chief Justice Rose Bird , were removed by voters in 1986.

The newest round of selections, though, have been viewed as serious legal scholars and reflect Brown's changed style upon returning to Sacramento in 2011.

"It's pretty clear that he views the court as one of the big institutions that he’s making a mark on as part of his legacy," Amar said.

The governor's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Werdegar's decision to retire. His eventual pick for the position must be confirmed by the state Commission on Judicial Appointments.

Amar said that Brown's recent three selections — Justices Goodwin Liu, Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar and Leondra Krueger — were all young jurists of color and noted for their strong academic credentials. Werdegar's replacement, he said, will be especially interesting in that Brown might be ready to choose someone with more "rough and tumble" experience as a prosecutor or even in politics.

The selection also comes at a time of heightened attention on the power of state government versus federal government, with California lawmakers seeking to challenge the actions of President Trump and the U.S. Supreme Court.

"He appreciates that with the opposing party currently in control, it really does fall to the state level to provide some kind of counter-vision as to what government ought to be doing," Amar said.

When Werdegar retires, Justice Ming Chin, 74, will become the longest-serving member of the California Supreme Court.

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