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All seven state Supreme Court justices have removed themselves from participation in a lawsuit seeking to block the sale of 11 state buildings. They did not offer a formal reason, but it is safe to assume they did so because their court is housed in the San Francisco Civic Center Complex, one of the properties up for sale.

Because the Supreme Court justices recused themselves, the state will call upon seven appellate court judges to serve in their place, according to Judicial Council spokeswoman Lynn Holton. To select them, the Supreme Court will go down an alphabetical list of judges. That could happen as soon as this week.

The case is at the 6th District Court of Appeal in San Jose, but Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has asked the Supreme Court to intervene and dismiss the case. Schwarzenegger attorneys said the state must sell the buildings before he leaves office, or else the deal could be in jeopardy.

Gov.-elect Jerry Brown has expressed disapproval with the building sale and opted not to represent the state in his current role as attorney general. Should courts tie up the deal until January, Brown could elect to drop the sale.

It is unusual for all seven Supreme Court justices to recuse themselves. Holton thought the last time they did so might have been in a 1989 case involving the building where the court was temporarily housed after the Loma Prieta earthquake.

It may be challenging to find seven appellate court judges on short notice. Not only is it a popular time for holiday vacations, but two of the six appellate court districts operate out of buildings that are part of the state sale and may also be recused. In fact, the Supreme Court had to change the appellate court venue of the case last week from the San Francisco-based 1st District to the San Jose-based 6th District for that reason.

In another odd twist, Schwarzenegger issued an executive order Tuesday naming the San Francisco Civic Center complex after outgoing Chief Justice Ronald George. The order comes a day after his lawyers asked the Supreme Court to allow the building sale to go through. George is on vacation the next two weeks, so his duties are being handled by acting chief justices.

Under terms of the building sale, the new owners would be required to retain the building names, according to Department of General Services spokesman Eric Lamoureux.

Former state building authority members filed suit last month to block the sale, which would generate $1.3 billion in cash to help plug the state's current operating deficit. Under the deal, the state would lease the buildings back over at least 20 years from investors known as California First LLC. The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office has criticized the deal as costly for the state and said the state would essentially pay 10.2 percent interest to obtain that $1.3 billion in cash now.

Schwarzenegger attorneys, in their request to the Supreme Court, said of the legal challenge, "For those who say that California is ungovernable, this litigation should serve as Exhibit A." They argue that the Legislature and the governor authorized the transaction, and therefore the lawsuit thwarts the will of the people.

Plaintiffs allege that the deal subverts the separation of powers by not obtaining authorization from the Judicial Council, plus the deal is so costly for the state that it constitutes a gift of public funds.

Few officials outside of the governor's administration have defended the building sale, which legislators initially authorized as part of the 2009 budget agreement and assumed as part of their 2010-11 budget solution. Democrats say they were desperate to avoid further cuts to state programs.

Update (7:30 p.m.):
Corrected to reflect that Schwarzenegger named the San Francisco Civic Center Complex after Ronald George rather than any one particular building.


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