SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – California Supreme Court Justice Ming Chin announced Wednesday he will retire at the end of August, capping 24 years on the bench of the Golden State’s high court.
The son of Chinese immigrants and the youngest of eight children, Chin became court’s first Chinese American justice in 1996 when he was appointed by Governor Pete Wilson. At the time Chin was considered a moderate Republican joining a conservative bench, and his unanimous confirmation drew fierce opposition from anti-abortion groups after he publicly expressed his support for “a woman’s right to choose.”
A year later, he joined a 4-3 majority that struck down a law requiring minors seeking abortions to get consent from their parents. Chin faced a retention election because of that decision, along with then-Chief Justice Ron George, who wrote the majority opinion. It was a fight they easily won.
As time went on, Chin became one of the more conservative voices of the court. He dissented in a 2008 decision to overturn California’s ban on same-sex marriage.
He also dissented in a November 2019 ruling that overturned an exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement for vehicle searches, and wrote a majority opinion in People v. Diaz, a 2011 decision that allowed the police to conduct warrantless searches of arrestees’ cellphones.
Throughout his tenure, Chin wrote more than 350 majority opinions. He also played a significant role on California’s Judicial Council, chairing the court’s technology advisory committee for 10 years. His coinciding departure from the council, the rule-making body for the courts, will be a loss deeply felt throughout the judiciary. Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye called it “incalculable.”
“He has been a valuable mentor who took me under his wing when I first became chief justice,” Cantil-Sakauye said. “He has been a leader in helping our courts embrace technology to expand access to justice to all Californians. His signature mix of intelligence, wisdom and practicality will be greatly missed.”
Former Gov. Wilson called Chin “a model of judicial excellence” whose appointment was a point of pride for him.
“His career has produced opinions and dissents that are strong statements of principle expressed with admirable clarity,” Wilson said. “They are also often stated with good humor and a collegiality that I’m sure his colleagues will miss.”
Chin grew up Klamath Falls, Oregon, and worked seven days a week on his family’s potato farm. “My parents didn’t have the opportunity to go to grammar school, or high school, much less college, and yet they were among the very best teachers I have ever known,” Chin told the League of Women Voters in 1998. “My father never asked for a handout – only a helping hand. He only asked for the freedom to raise and educate his family, to give us the education he was denied.”
Chin says he was inspired to become a lawyer while a student at a Catholic boarding school. When the school stopped providing lodging, he lived with the family of a local judge and would watch jury trials at the local courthouse.
“I went to live with Judge David Vandenberg and it was the process that really tweaked my interest in becoming a lawyer,” Chin told the Asian American Bar Association in an interview last year. “The judge gave me law books to read, he took me down to court, and I got to watch jury trials. He handed me the gun in a murder case. He gave me Blackstone to read when I was 11. It’s kind of amazing that I ever became a lawyer, but it was a great experience.”
When he applied to law school, Vandenberg wrote him a letter of recommendation. Chin said he keeps that letter tucked inside the frame of a signed photo of Vandenberg, which he has in his chambers to this day.
Chin earned both his bachelor’s degree in political science and juris doctorate from the University of San Francisco. After law school, he joined the army and went to Vietnam, where he became a captain and earned both the Bronze Star and a Commendation Medal for his service.
He started his legal career as an Alameda County prosecutor, but was recruited after three years to work for Aiken, Kramer & Cummings in Oakland. In 1988, Governor George Deukmejian appointed him to the Alameda County bench and then to the First Appellate District in 1990.
Retired Justice Marvin Baxter, who often joined in on decisions with Chin, praised his former colleague in a statement.
“He leaves a lasting legacy in the law that few can match. His personal attributes are outstanding, and it was a great privilege to serve with him on the Supreme Court,” said Baxter, who left the bench in 2015.
In a statement announcing his retirement, Chin said, “The judicial system has faced some major challenges in my time on the bench, but I believe the branch is now in a strong position.”
Noting that a former judicial colleague once said Chin’s opinions were “characterized by clarity and courage,” he added, “If that is what is written about me in 50 years, I would be happy,”
Chin is the longest-sitting member of the court. His exit paves the way for Gov. Gavin Newsom to make his first court appointment, which currently holds its first Democratic majority since 1987.