California Supreme Court Justice Marvin R. Baxter announced Wednesday that he will retire when his term ends in January, providing Gov. Jerry Brown another opportunity to reshape the state’s high court.
Baxter’s planned retirement follows Justice Joyce L. Kennard’s departure in April and further signals the coming changes to the court. A 74-year-old Republican appointed by then-Gov. George Deukmejian, Baxter was considered among the court’s most conservative justices.
His career spanned from deputy district attorney to working in private practice to serving as appointments secretary to Deukmejian. Baxter was an associate justice on the California Court of Appeal before his nomination to the Supreme Court.
“It is a great honor to have served on the state’s high court since 1991,” he said in a statement. “With three chief justices, twelve associate justices, and excellent staff, I have been able to contribute to its substantial body of opinions and case law. At the local and statewide levels, I was gratified to have the opportunity to assist Gov. Deukmejian in the appointment of more than 700 judges and numerous executive branch appointees, and to have supported the evolution of our judicial branch of government as a member of the Judicial Council of California and its committees.”
Baxter added that he and his wife of 51 years, Jane Pippert Baxter, looked forward to an active retirement, and will focus their attention on family and friends.
Malcolm Lucas, who retired as chief justice in 1996, described his former colleague as a solid person with intelligence and perseverance.
“And at my vaunted age of 87, I can say that it is not too bad just to sit back and contemplate life,” Lucas said. “But I know he owns a classic 1958 Corvette that may get some more attention.”
A native of Fowler in Fresno County, Baxter attended Fresno State University where he served as president of the student body, alumni association and trust council, and later as head of the Fresno Young Lawyers Association and Fresno County Bar Association. He earned his law degree from Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco, where he also is a director emeritus. Deukmejian said he counted Baxter as a friend and trusted adviser for more than three decades.
“His quiet yet thoughtful demeanor served as a steady influence during some troublesome times that I experienced in the governor’s office,” Deukmejian said in the prepared statement distributed by the court. “His endless efforts resulted in well established recommendations that I grew to rely upon, especially in the selection of individuals for judicial appointments. His accomplishments both on and off the bench have been justifiably praised by all who know him.”
With the pair of Deukmejian nominees retiring, Brown will have at least two more chances to influence the direction of the court. Since Brown returned to the governor’s office, his lone nomination was of Goodwin Liu, who had been a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley.
A Brown spokesman said the governor is not required to wait until November, or January, to nominate a successor to Baxter. Spokesman Evan Westrup said the governor was moving expeditiously to fill both vacancies, with the top focus on identifying and appointing the best possible candidates.
While Kennard was seen as a moderate, Baxter was considered a solid conservative. The two broke on overturning Proposition 22, the state’s prior same-sex marriage ban affirming the definition of marriage as between a man and a woman. In the dissenting opinion, Baxter wrote that the court majority, led by Chief Justice Ronald M. George, should have deferred to the Legislature and voters.
The court “does not have the right to erase, then recast, the age-old definition of marriage, as virtually all societies have understood it, in order to satisfy its own contemporary notions of equality and justice,” Baxter wrote.
Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated Proposition 8, which voters approved to place the same-sex marriage ban in the state constitution.
Baxter often took a law-and-order approach to criminal cases. When the court upheld the sex-offender registration law for those convicted of misdemeanors, he stated it did not violate a ban on cruel or unusual punishment because “the mere registration of convicted sex offenders is not a punitive measure.”
He later wrote the majority opinion in a case that made it harder for sexually violent predators to return to local communities after completing prison terms. “A serious and well-founded risk” was enough to justify civil confinement in the sexually violent predator program, Baxter wrote.
But in a separate ruling re-affirming the Miranda rules, Baxter stated that the practice of training officers to violate the rights of suspects was “unconscionable.”
“Officers must be made aware that they have an absolute obligation to play by the rules,” he wrote.
George, who appointed Baxter to the Judicial Council of California, said he contributed decades of public service at the state and local levels.
His “constructive and collegial approach to problem-solving was of great benefit to me and to our colleagues during the time we served together,” George said.
Call Christopher Cadelago, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 326-5538. Follow him on Twitter @ccadelago.