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‘Not Burned Out,’ Arguelles Says of Decision to Retire From Court

Times Staff Writer

Justice John A. Arguelles on Wednesday rejected speculation that judicial “burnout,” caused by a burdensome caseload, prompted his unexpected retirement after only two years on the state Supreme Court.

“I have neither burned out nor been frustrated,” said Arguelles in his first public statements about his surprise retirement since he announced his decision in November. “The workload is heavy, but that comes with the territory, and I think all of the justices handle the caseload well.”

But Arguelles, meeting with reporters on the day he officially left office, did acknowledge that being away from family and friends while he commuted between Southern California and the court’s headquarters here was a factor in his decision to retire.

“I had anticipated spending longer on the court,” said the 61-year old jurist. “But there is a great deal of separation from your family and perhaps I didn’t fully comprehend the effect that has.”

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There had been speculation in legal circles that the court’s backlog of nearly 400 cases--about half of them legally complex death-penalty appeals--had led to Arguelles’ resignation, along with the strain of weekend travel.

Arguelles said Wednesday that he wants to leave the court while still in good health and that he would be pursuing unspecified professional opportunities in the future. He said he wants to spend more “quality time” with his wife, Martha, who is a senior partner in an Orange County interpreting and translating firm, and other members of his family.

“I’d kind of like to walk into retirement, rather than be carried into it,” he said. “Some simple pleasures, like riding the waves at Laguna Beach this summer or walking the dog along the greenbelt in Irvine, sound pretty good to me.”

Arguelles noted that it “made sense” to step down now while the court is implementing a new procedure that requires decisions to be issued within 90 days of argument before the justices. During this transitional period, the court’s monthly calendar of cases to be argued has been temporarily reduced.

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The justice’s successor has not yet been named by Gov. George Deukmejian. Four state appellate court justices--Patricia D. Benke, H. Walter Croskey, Joyce L. Kennard and Fred W. Marler--are under consideration. Arguelles said all the potential nominees had “impeccable credentials and solid reputations.”

Arguelles conceded that he would have liked to spend more time on the high court to establish a longer “track record,” but noted that he had already spent 23 years on the Municipal, Superior and Court of Appeal bench.

Discussing a wide range of other subjects, Arguelles:

- Characterized the newly aligned court under Chief Justice Malcolm M. Lucas as “stable, efficient and productive” and described himself and his colleagues as “moderate voices,” seeking the “best possible solutions” to complex legal questions.

He cautiously predicted there would be no recurrence of the bitter and tumultuous election two years ago in which Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird and two other court members were turned out of office by the voters. “I don’t anticipate that there will be a repetition of a 1986-type election in the years to follow,” he said.

- Said he expects the court to move faster in deciding capital cases in the future, now that virtually all major questions about the death penalty have been resolved. He noted that in less than two years, the court under Lucas has issued 69 capital rulings (upholding the death penalty in 49 cases), compared to 68 capital decisions (upholding the death penalty four times) by the court in eight years under Bird.

- Discounted the significance of occasional splits in court votes among the five justices on the seven-member court who were appointed by Deukmejian. “We have seven very independent justices on this court,” he said. “I think that’s the way the public would want it. I don’t think the public would want seven men marching in lock-step.”

- Said he will stay on the court by temporary special appointment to conclude work on several cases in which he has been participating. Arguelles will sit with the court next week in Sacramento, for example, when the justices hear argument over the constitutionality of Proposition 103, the insurance initiative passed in November.

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- Said that until his court work is complete, he will not consider specific offers among the wide range of professional opportunities that may be open to him in the future--including law practice, arbitration and mediation, teaching and serving on corporate boards.


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