State Justice Arabian Expected to Step Down : Law: Conservative Deukmejian appointee will announce Supreme Court retirement Monday, sources say.


Justice Armand Arabian is expected to announce next week that he is retiring from the California Supreme Court, leaving Gov. Pete Wilson with a second vacancy to fill on the state high court.

The court office in San Francisco disclosed Thursday that Arabian will make a major announcement after the weekend. Court officials refused to divulge the nature of Monday morning’s scheduled remarks, but well-placed sources told The Times that Arabian will discuss his intention to step down.

Chief Justice Malcolm Lucas earlier had announced that he will retire from the bench in May.

Arabian, a conservative appointed by longtime friend and former governor George Deukmejian, has been on the court only five years, a short tenure for a high court justice. He is one of the court’s most prolific producers of opinions, and his departure seems likely to affect the court’s productivity.


“We thought with the second round of Deukmejian appointees we were seeing a little more stability on the court,” said law professor Gerald F. Uelmen of the University of Santa Clara. “So losing two justices in one year will be a blow in terms of disruptions that comings and goings inevitably bring with them.”

Arabian’s colleagues on the court refused to comment Thursday on the justice’s expected announcement, saying they were sworn to secrecy.

Arabian became eligible for full state retirement benefits last December, when he turned 60, and was recently quoted as saying he would leave the high court for “the right opportunity.”

He spends most of the week in San Francisco, where the court is headquartered, and returns to Los Angeles on weekends to be with his wife in their San Fernando Valley home.

Arabian’s most notable court opinions have been in the area of medicine, said Uelmen, who tracks the court closely. Arabian wrote a pair of “very well thought out” opinions two years ago that gave “badly needed guidance” to physicians on issues of informed consent, Uelmen recalled.

In one of those opinions, Arabian said doctors do not need to give dying patients statistical probabilities in order to get informed consent for treatment. “He kind of carved that niche out for himself as the expert on the court,” Uelmen said.

Arabian is best known in California legal circles, however, for the style of his opinions. He uses literary references and occasional humor to make his points. “His opinions are never dull,” Uelmen said.

In one of his more memorable dissents, Arabian chided his colleagues on the court as “chary” for upholding a condominium association’s right to ban cats and other pets from units. Arabian, who owns two cats, is devoted to the feline.

“ ‘There are two means of refuge from the misery of life: music and cats,’ ” Arabian wrote in his dissent, quoting Albert Schweitzer.

Uelmen said Arabian also wrote the “worst” decision to come from the Lucas court in recent years, upholding the death sentence of the so-called Trailside Killer in Northern California despite a clear trial error that may have influenced the jury.

In that case, the trial judge had ruled that the error was serious enough to warrant a new trial on the sentencing, but Arabian wrote the majority opinion upholding the verdict.

Another analyst, UC Berkeley law professor Stephen Barnett, said Arabian was “notable mainly for his bombastic style and his emotional, moralizing approach to the law.”

“He has added some color to the court,” Barnett said, “but not much distinction.”

Arabian has been a solid member of the Lucas court’s conservative majority, although he has been unpredictable at times.

He aligned himself with the plight of rape victims, writing an opinion in 1991 that said the city of Los Angeles could be forced to pay damages to a woman raped by a police officer who had detained her.

Arabian has been a judge for more than 20 years. Former Gov. Ronald Reagan appointed him to the Los Angeles Municipal Court in 1972 and later elevated him to the Superior Court. Deukmejian, who shares Arabian’s Armenian heritage, appointed him to the Court of Appeal and later to the state Supreme Court.

Arabian met Deukmejian when they were representing opposing sides in an Armenian family dispute. The justice often refers to his Armenian heritage and gives speeches to Armenian groups.

He and Justice Marvin Baxter, also an Armenian American, raised some eyebrows by voting to review the conviction of an Armenian activist who murdered a Turkish diplomat in Los Angeles. The two justices then removed themselves from any further participation in the case.

Wilson has not said anything about his plans to fill vacancies on the high court, but Justice Ronald George is believed to be a front-runner to replace Lucas as chief justice.

Times staff writer Dave Lesher in Sacramento contributed to this story.