California Supreme Court Justice Joyce Kennard, the longest serving current justice, is retiring on April 5, giving Gov. Jerry Brown a chance to further shape the state's highest court.
The 72-year-old Kennard notified Brown on Tuesday afternoon of her intent to step down in two months, when she will hit 25 years on the job as an influential -- and sometimes quirky -- member of a Supreme Court who is well known for her independent streak, willingness to pen dissents and her lengthy grilling of lawyers during oral arguments in California's highest profile cases.
In an interview with this newspaper, Kennard said: "It is with a heavy heart I'm saying goodbye."
"April 5 will be 25 years," Kennard said. "That's a quarter of a century. That's a long, long time."
Former Gov. George Deukmejian, a conservative Republican, appointed Kennard to the Supreme Court in 1989, capping a swift rise through the judiciary, where she previously was a Los Angeles trial judge and an appeals court justice for a brief time before being elevated to the state's high court.
But Kennard never fit the mold of a conservative appointee, often breaking ranks with her colleagues, writing dozens of dissents in her long career, including in death penalty cases. Asked about her legacy, Kennard replied: "I'll leave it to others how they judge my tenure."
Former Chief Justice Ronald George, who spent many years on the court with Kennard, agreed with the assessment of legal scholars who've long described her as unpredictable and independent.
"She certainly did not have any specific agenda or particular dogma she adhered to," George said.
Kennard's unique personal history was influential, being a native of Indonesia whose parents were a mix of ancestry, including Dutch, which still heavily flavors her speech. She moved to the Netherlands as a teenager and lost part of her right leg to an infection, forcing her to walk with a prosthetic the rest of her life. Kennard's father died in a Japanese prison camp when she was just an infant, and she later lost her mother.
Kennard moved to the United States in 1961, settling in Southern California, where she put herself through school. She earned her law degree from USC.
"Any success I've had is because of America," she said. "It gave me a chance against all odds."
Kennard was famous for interjecting questions during oral arguments before the Supreme Court, often turning them into lengthy speeches before pointing her finger at a lawyer and demanding an answer. She was unpredictable in her rulings, and would come down on the more liberal side of social issues before the court.
Kennard was in the 4-3 majority that in 2008 struck down California's long-standing bans on gay marriage, a ruling that preceded voter approval of Proposition 8 -- which restored the same-sex marriage ban until the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated it last year.
Among her other notable cases was a 2002 ruling in which she found against Nike, concluding that businesses could be held liable for public statements regarding labor practices as commercial business speech.
With Kennard's retirement, Brown has a chance to name his second justice to the seven-member court. The governor previously appointed Justice Goodwin Liu. In a statement, Brown praised Kennard, saying she "left a lasting mark on the court."
Howard Mintz covers legal affairs. Contact him at 408-286-0236 or follow him at Twitter.com/hmintz