There is shock at the State Supreme Court, where Chief Justice Ron George stunned his colleagues Wednesday by announcing that he will retire at the end of this year.

Although his fellow justices were tearful at his surprise decision, Chief Justice Ron George told KCBS that it’s time to go after 38 years on the bench, the last 14 leading California’s highest court.

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“There’s a certain point in life when you have the physical and mental ability to pursue the other richness of life that is available to you,” said George. “I want to enjoy reading, time with the family, and travel.”

Chief Justice George authored hundreds of opinions, but knows he’s likely to be remembered most for the three he wrote on same sex marriage. Some conservative critics accused the 70-year-old Republican-appointed justice of “judicial activism” when his court legalized gay marriage for a few months in 2008.

“Of course activism is in the eye of the beholder, and it may depend in part on whose ox is getting gored,” said George.

George says those cases, including the one that ultimately upheld the voters’ right to make gay marriage illegal again, were based entirely on the rule of law.

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“This trilogy of cases that I happened to have authored for the court really illustrates as a continuum the limitations on government power,” said George.

The chief’s greatest frustrations include the public’s lack of understanding about how the judiciary functions, and California’s dysfunctional death penalty system.

“It’s literally true that the leading cause of death on death row is old age, and that is not a good reflection on the system,” said George.

Chief Justice George hopes the public will appreciate the fundamental reforms he brought to California’s court system, everything from consolidating the courts to the “one day or one trial” jury system.

Governor Schwarzenegger must nominate a successor by September 16th. The chief justice is confident he’ll make a good choice, after working with Schwarzenegger to make sure the courts had adequate funding.

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“Things are in much better shape, we’re not having to close our courts anymore, and I felt like I could, in good conscience, leave,” said George.