SAN FRANCISCO — Justice Joyce L. Kennard, a Republican appointee who forged a largely liberal path on the California Supreme Court, announced Tuesday she will retire April 5, giving Gov. Jerry Brown another chance to put his mark on the state's highest court.
Kennard, 72, is the court's longest-serving justice, with a 25-year tenure. She has been regarded as a highly independent judge, often siding with the underdog. Though she owed her place on the top court to former Gov. George Deukmejian, a law-and-order conservative, she bucked expectations and sided so often with the late liberal Justice Stanley Mosk that the pair was dubbed "the odd couple." Kennard even enjoyed a private friendship with the late Chief Justice Rose Bird, the liberal whom Deukmejian helped eject from the court.
Brown is likely to face strong pressure to replace Kennard with a Latino. Some Latino groups reacted furiously in 2011 when Brown chose Justice Goodwin Liu, a former UC Berkeley law professor, over Latino candidates. The seven-member court has no Latino or African American member, and Liu, a liberal, is its only Democratic appointee. Brown's selection is likely to move the court, regarded as moderate to conservative, farther to the left.
"As an immigrant who came to this country at age 20 in 1961 with just the rudiments of an education, any success I achieved could have happened only in America, a land that encourages impossible dreams, a land where one can succeed against all odds," Kennard told Brown in a letter she faxed to him Tuesday. "I never felt that America owed me anything. I am indebted to America for letting me in."
Kennard, a voracious worker, said in an interview that she wanted time for other pursuits. "While my health is still good, I would like to spend time doing things with friends," she said.
Kennard was born in Indonesia to parents who were of Dutch, Indonesian, Chinese and German descent and suffered an impoverished childhood. She was confined to an internment camp in Java during the Japanese occupation of the region. When she was a teenager, a tumor required doctors to amputate her right leg above the knee. She walks with a prosthesis and a cane.
She landed a job as a secretary, and with a $5,000 bequest from her mother and scholarships, started her formal education at Pasadena City College. She earned her law degree and a master's of public administration from USC.
She served as a deputy attorney general and a staff attorney for the Los Angeles-based Court of Appeal before Deukmejian put her on the Los Angeles Municipal Court and elevated her to Superior Court, the Court of Appeal and finally the highest court. She wrote in her letter to Brown that she "will always be deeply grateful" to Deukmejian.
Kennard has been viewed as an unpredictable justice. She has tended to vote in favor of expanding civil rights for gays and other minorities and has not hesitated to overturn a criminal conviction if she determined the law had not been followed. But she also wrote a 4-3 ruling in 2012 that upheld the murder conviction of a Southern California man whose trial included incriminating forensic evidence that later was discredited. The California Innocence Project had taken up the man's case.
Among her blockbuster rulings was a 4-3 decision in 2002 that said corporations could be liable for deceptive advertising if they made misleading public statements about their operations and conduct. The court's decision stemmed from statements Nike had made in defending itself against charges that its products were made in Third World sweatshops. Without determining whether Nike lied, Kennard wrote that corporations must speak truthfully when making factual representations about their products.
She also was among the 4-3 court majority that overturned California's ban on same-sex marriage in 2008. Voters later reinstated the ban, but the U.S. Supreme Court last year finally ended it.
Many of Kennard's dissents have been adopted by the U.S. Supreme Court, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals and the Legislature. In a 2000 case on spousal support, Kennard refused to go along with the majority in holding that prenuptial agreements could be enforced even if they caused one spouse hardship. The Legislature later passed a law that reflected her views.
Kennard also is widely known for her vigorous questioning at oral arguments, inquiries that show a deep knowledge of the cases but also prompt complaints from lawyers that she squandered their time.
Her only brush with controversy came in 1991 when an officer spotted her driving with a flat tire and gave her a roadside sobriety test. Though Kennard must walk with a cane, the officer said she had failed the roadside exercise. A blood test later showed she was not intoxicated, and a prosecutor who had been with Kennard that evening called the arrest a miscarriage of justice. No charges were filed.