Justice John A. Arguelles, a member of the conservative majority on the realigned state Supreme Court, said Monday he will retire from the bench March 1.
"I've had many years of heavy calendars as a lawyer and a judge," Arguelles, a jurist for nearly 25 years, said. "While I'm still in good health and have some sand in my hourglass left, there are some other things I want to do."
In a letter to Gov. George Deukmejian, the 61-year-old justice said he will return to his home in Orange County to engage "in other business and professional activities."
Arguelles offered no elaboration but said he had advised Chief Justice Malcolm M. Lucas of his "ongoing interest in California's court administration" and his willingness to take on special assignments for the court.
The timing of the resignation gives Deukmejian considerable time to select a successor and allows Arguelles the opportunity to participate in some of the more important cases pending before the court.
The justices are considering whether to review the insurance industry's challenge to Proposition 103, the sweeping insurance-rate cutback initiative approved by the voters Nov. 8. Also pending is a major case testing the limits of protections for employees who contend they have been wrongfully discharged.
Arguelles will leave the state high court just two years after he was sworn into office as one of three justices Deukmejian selected to fill vacancies created by the defeat of Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird and Justices Cruz Reynoso and Joseph R. Grodin in a bitterly fought November, 1986, election.
The three court members chosen by the Republican governor--Arguelles and Justices David N. Eagleson and Marcus M. Kaufman--combined with two previous Deukmejian appointees--Lucas and Justice Edward A. Panelli--to put conservatives in control of a court the liberal bloc had dominated for decades.
Regarded as Most Moderate
Arguelles was regarded as perhaps the most moderate of the three new appointees, but nonetheless he has remained aligned with the other Deukmejian nominees in all but a few major decisions.
Arguelles' resignation at this time assures that his successor will be named by Deukmejian, whose current four-year term ends in January, 1991. Thus, there is little likelihood Arguelles' departure will result in a philosophical shift on the court.
Deukmejian praised Arguelles for serving in "an exemplary manner" on the high court, as well as in his previous posts on the state Court of Appeal and Superior and Municipal courts in Los Angeles.
"During Justice Arguelles' tenure with the California Supreme Court, the high court has regained its reputation as one of the most well-respected judicial tribunals in the nation," the governor said.
Arguelles said he had found his career on the bench "important and professionally satisfying" and that his association with the other six justices on the high court had been "especially enjoyable."
"In my judgment, the Supreme Court is currently functioning as a stable, efficient and productive institution," he said.
It is expected that Deukmejian, as he has in the past, will reveal a list of potential nominees and then choose one to succeed Arguelles. A spokesman for the governor in Sacramento said Deukmejian will begin the appointment process "as quickly as possible."
Such a list of possible choices would be evaluated privately by a special commission of the State Bar. After that evaluation, the governor's final choice would be submitted for approval in public proceedings by the state Judicial Appointments Commission, made up of the chief justice, state Atty. Gen. John K. Van de Kamp and Appellate Justice Lester W. Roth, the senior presiding justice of the state Court of Appeal.
Respected Sitting Judges
Thus far, the governor has chosen well-established and respected sitting judges in filling state Supreme Court vacancies. Panelli, Arguelles, Eagleson and Kaufman all came from the state Court of Appeal, and Lucas, the governor's former law partner, was a federal district judge before Deukmejian named him to the state high court in 1984.
Speculation is likely to center first on two appeal court justices who were among those considered for the three vacancies that arose after the defeat of Bird and the two others: Appellate Justices Hollis G. Best of Fresno and Patricia D. Benke of San Diego, a former Superior Court judge whom Deukmejian recently elevated to the appeal court. The other jurist considered previously by the governor, Appellate Justice James B. Scott of San Francisco, has retired from the bench.
Others whose names may be considered are Appellate Justices Carl West Anderson of San Francisco, Ronald M. George of Los Angeles and Daniel J. Kremer of San Diego.
In his relatively brief stay on the court, Arguelles has been known as a hard worker and is invariably friendly and courteous to staff members and outsiders.
During oral argument before the court, Arguelles has avoided the aggressive and occasionally brusque manner of some judges in favor of carefully phrased and polite interrogations of attorneys.
He and his wife, Martha, a former Spanish-language interpreter in the Orange County courts, have maintained their residence in Irvine. The justice has commuted by plane to the high court's headquarters in San Francisco. His weekday evenings, he has told friends, frequently involve heating up a TV dinner while he reads through a stack of briefs and other court documents.
Joined Conservative Majority
On the Supreme Court, Arguelles has joined the new conservative majority in most of its important rulings, including the October, 1987, decision striking down a controversial ruling by the Bird court that had required a specific finding of intent to kill before the convicted defendant in a felony-murder case could be sentenced to death.
In April, Arguelles wrote the majority opinion when the court upheld the constitutionality of Proposition 51, the "deep-pockets" liability reform initiative, but by a vote of 4 to 3 refused to apply its sharp limits to tens of thousands of cases pending at the time of its passage in June, 1986.
By applying the reform measure only to future cases, the court dealt a serious blow to businesses, insurers, government agencies and others who favored retroactive application of its restrictions.
Arguelles also wrote the court's 5-2 decision in January allowing judges to jail habitual truants for refusing a judicial order to return to school.
And in a victory for law enforcement, Arguelles last August issued the majority opinion in a 5-2 ruling upholding a state law that makes it a crime to loiter near a public restroom for a lewd purpose.
The justice joined the majority when the court in a 4-3 decision upheld the legality of police roadblocks to apprehend drunk drivers and in another 4-3 ruling when the justices refused to allow Van de Kamp to use state anti-trust laws to challenge the $10-billion merger of Texaco and Getty Oil.
He also voted with the majority when the court abolished the right of injury victims to sue a wrongdoer's insurer for "bad-faith" delay or refusal to settle a claim.
However, in a notable dissent, Arguelles joined with Justices Stanley Mosk and Allen E. Broussard in a minority opinion when the court abandoned a state constitutional prohibition against the use of improperly obtained confessions. The court held 4 to 3 that such statements could be used to challenge a defendant's testimony at trial.
Consistent in Capital Cases
Arguelles consistently joined the court majority in capital cases where the justices have upheld the death penalty in 44 of 59 rulings issued thus far under Lucas. But he did issue a dissent, joined by Mosk and Broussard, when the court last August narrowly upheld the death penalty for Richard Boyde, the killer of a Riverside high school coach.
Arguelles was the second Latino to be named to the state Supreme Court. He was born in Los Angeles, the son of parents who emigrated from Mexico. After service in the Navy during World War II, he studied economics and Spanish at UCLA, where he later graduated from law school.