Chief Justice Speech - January 29, 2002

Remarks by Chief Justice Ronald M. George
The Judicial Council of California
75th Anniversary Dinner
Argent Hotel, San Francisco
January 29, 2002

Good evening. I am very pleased to welcome you to this evening's celebration of the 75th anniversary of the creation of California's Judicial Council. We have an extraordinary assemblage of our branch's leaders, past and present, and I want to thank you for attending and being part of this exciting event.

To many, the Judicial Council may still seem swathed in mystery. But for more and more individuals in the judicial system, in our sister branches of government, and in the public at large, the council has assumed an increasingly visible and valuable leadership position for the judicial branch.

Nor is it mere coincidence that the council's growing prominence has been matched by the emergence of a stronger, more independent, more effectively managed, and more service-oriented court system across California. The council's expanding role and our court system's wider assumption of responsibilities in the community, both local and statewide, have been the critical components in ensuring that the judicial branch remains strong and independent for the benefit of all Californians.

In 1926, when an amendment to California's Constitution to establish a Judicial Council was placed on the ballot, California had a proliferation of courts—but no centralized means to guide them or place them in a rational scheme. At the same time, a similar move to organize the federal judicial system was underway. In 1922, an act authorizing the Chief Justice of the United States to assign district court judges to sit temporarily where needed was enacted. The act also created a conference of senior circuit judges who were charged with providing recommendations concerning how to improve the administration of justice.

In an article in the journal of the United States Supreme Court Historical Society, Professor Robert Post explained: "First, and most fundamentally, the act implied 'a functional unification of the United States judiciary.' . . . The act for the first time conceptualized federal judges as also integrated into a single, coherent branch of the federal government designed to attain functional objectives."

The California voters' pamphlet in 1926 echoed the concerns that gave rise to the federal act. It explained: "The work of the various courts is not correlated, and nobody is responsible for seeing that the machinery of the court is working smoothly. . . .Under the present system, when it is discovered that some rule or procedure is not working well, it is nobody's business to see that the evil is corrected."

That statement no longer applies. The establishment of the Judicial Council, in 1926, for the first time gave our state's judicial branch a cohesive focus. In the years since, the Judicial Council and the court system as a whole have made it their business to correct systemic inequities and deficiencies. The role of the Judicial Council was defined broadly from the outset, and our efforts to work together effectively as a statewide branch of government continue to be a work in progress.

Since 1926, the council's mission has changed and expanded in order to meet the ever-increasing needs of our ever-changing state—and to ensure that our judicial system remains strong and independent.

Chief Justice William Waste, my predecessor at the time the Judicial Council was incorporated into our Constitution, began by assessing the operations of all of the trial courts—the first time that had been done. It was not an easy task, and his documentation of some 800 different permutations of trial courts in the state—8 different types of court below the superior court, including such courts as district courts, county courts, city courts, probate courts, recorders' courts, class A and class B township courts, and police courts—gave impetus to efforts to streamline the system statewide.

Chief Justice Gibson observed as late as 1949, in an article published in the California State Bar Journal, "[T]here are very few lawyers who can correctly name all the types of trial courts in this state, much less give the source and extent of their jurisdiction." (24 Cal. St. B.J. 382, 384.) In 1950, the Constitution finally was amended to limit the trial court structure of our state to justice courts, municipal courts, and superior courts, abolishing the hodge-podge of inferior courts.

Efforts to simplify the trial court system continued, and in 1994 the justice courts were abolished and became municipal courts. And finally, just last February, I swore in the last four surviving municipal court judges as Kings County superior court judges, signaling the final unification of our trial system into one comprehensive level of court. We now have 58 trial courts —one for each county—reduced from the approximately 220 trial courts that we had only a few years ago.

The Judicial Council was involved in this evolution at every juncture—and as we look back 75 years to the first efforts to document the array of courts then in operation, it becomes obvious that our successes as the 20th century drew to a close had their origins in the decades-long movement to imbue court administration with a statewide, rather than a purely local, perspective.

Much of the council's focus over the years, as is true today, was on developing and adopting rules of court to bring more uniformity and clarity to the administration of justice. As it collected information, developed rules of practice and procedure, and made recommendations to the courts and to the Legislature, the council steadily contributed to the ongoing development of our legal system.

It is remarkable, considering the work being done today by the council, that it began without any dedicated staff. In the 1926 ballot measure creating the council, the Clerk of the Supreme Court was designated as secretary to the council. I sense that Fritz Ohlrich, given all of his other responsibilities as clerk and administrator of the Supreme Court, is pleased that the duties of his position no longer include staffing the council. In 1953, the council was given authority to hire necessary staff, and finally in 1961, under the leadership of Chief Justice Phil Gibson, who served as the second Chair of the Judicial Council, express authority was granted for the appointment of an Administrative Director of the Courts.

The first director was the legendary Ralph Kleps, whose skills and contributions are recognized on a national level and, more parochially, in the naming of the Kleps Awards that the council confers each year for creative efforts by individual courts to improve the administration of the courts. The luncheon at which the Kleps Awards are bestowed has become one of the highlights of the California Judicial Administration Conference each year.

Ralph Kleps was followed by Ralph Gampell and Bill Davis, who is, I understand, here with us tonight. Each of them also made significant and long-lasting contributions to the development of the Administrative Office of the Courts as it developed into an ever more able and diverse staff arm for the council.

The council is a unique leadership body comprising active jurists, lawyers, court administrators, and legislators who serve with no added compen-sation—devoting substantial time, energy, and skill to improving the administration of justice in California, in addition to what they contribute at their day jobs. The council grapples with difficult and complex issues of statewide significance, as it plans for the future of the entire judicial branch and provides direction for maintaining a strong, independent judicial system responsive to the needs of those we serve.

Council members do not sit as representatives of a constituency. Instead, each member brings to the table what he or she has learned from personal experience with the diversity of our court system and our state. Individuals from courts large and small, urban and rural, north, central, and south, with civil and criminal, public- and private-sector backgrounds, and vastly different life histories, bring their accumulated knowledge to the council and contribute their insights to make that body—and thus our court system—work better.

Our state is great because of the opportunities it affords and the variety and innovation it breeds and encourages. Over the years, the council has taken that lesson to heart.

During the past few decades, the council and the court system as a whole have broadened their vision for the courts. Of course, the fair adjudication of disputes that come before the courts for decision remains the core judicial function. But we have become acutely aware that if only a select few can take advantage of the judicial system, the courts—no matter how fairly they handle those cases—will not be meeting their responsibility to administer justice for all.

In 1992, the Judicial Council began an unprecedented process of critical self-examination that continues to this day. For the first time, the council met to consider goals for itself and for the court system as a whole. From the start, the foremost mission of the council, guiding all of its actions, has been improving access and fairness in the administration of justice in our state.

As the last millennium drew to a close, our courts entered a period of incredible change, challenge, and expansion. The court system was growing, but filings were increasing even more quickly. At the same time, the demands and expectations placed upon the courts by the public were exploding at an unprecedented pace.

The courts faced a choice. They could remain passive and narrowly focused, concentrating on day-to-day issues and leaving the big picture and the planning for the future to others—or they could look up from the bench and out to the world at large to consider not only the issues involved in the cases at hand, but also the health and strength of the entire system.

Our court system answered the call. It turned its attention not only to individual courts and cases, but to the needs of society and the system as a whole. It took seriously the fact that our branch relies on the trust and confidence of the public to fulfill its constitutional role in protecting the rule of law. Without doubt, the road taken has been the right one—although the precise direction to be taken was not always free of dispute. A balance always must be struck between statewide administration and the degree of local autonomy required to meet the needs of individual courts and the communities they serve. The variety of our state demands a menu of solutions—but at the same time, it challenges us to ensure that in all parts of the state, access to justice and to appropriate services are equally available to all.

The greatness of our system—and the progress we have made and will make in the future—rest in large part upon our ability as individuals and as courts to work together, to listen to each other, and to respect our traditions, while remaining open to change. In my view, our system has done a remarkable job thus far in achieving that balance.

For the last decade, our uniquely talented Bill Vickrey has been a vital component in making change happen. In just a few months, he will celebrate an important anniversary as well—his 10th year as Administrative Director of the Courts.

My predecessor, Malcolm Lucas, hired Bill early in 1992, and—very soon after arriving—Bill found that things were very different from what they had been in Utah. Within a few weeks—or was it days?—the budget crisis in California cast a harsh spotlight on the court system, with the Legislature threatening cuts of 38 percent in the judiciary's budget. On his first trip to Southern California, Bill met with a group of judges from a certain large county who were not shy about expressing their displeasure with the council and the AOC. While he was there, the earth trembled—a mild earthquake, but one that a more timorous soul might have taken as a sign of things to come. And, lest we forget, riots erupted, with a significant impact on the court system—not as a direct result of Bill's arrival on the California scene, but in response to the verdict in the Rodney King case. It turned out that all of this turmoil was simply a precursor to the challenges that Bill, Chief Justice Lucas, and the entire court system were soon to face.

Looking back over the past 75 years, it has been a remarkable journey. If our counterparts from 1926 were to join us today—or to attend the upcoming council meeting and CJAC, they would find much to surprise them—and yet much that would seem very familiar.

Unlike 75 years ago, the courtrooms and courthouses of today are staffed at every level by men and women from a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds. Our predecessors would be startled to find a funding system aimed at equalizing the administration of justice across the state; uniform rules that meet the needs of ever more mobile lawyers and litigants; joint efforts by the courts and social services agencies to meet the specialized needs of families, children, the homeless, and the addicted; community outreach efforts by judges; the provision of interpreters to translate more than 100 languages; and accommodations for the disabled to enable them to take full advantage of court services. The number of cases now flowing through the system would probably astonish those who preceded us, as would the sheer size of the system itself and its use of technology.

What then would be familiar? If our counterparts from 1926 were to step inside the courtroom and see a trial court in operation, they would feel very much at home—especially if the courthouse was one of our historic relics still in operation since the late 1800s or early 1900s. Also unchanged would be our adherence to the rule of law, with adjudication based upon the facts of each case and the law, rather than upon personal preference or outside influence. The principles that are so important to us today—such as equal justice for all—are constants that are not new to our system, and living up to them continues to be our guiding goal.

As we look back over the past 75 years, it is clear that our judicial system has benefited from an extraordinary array of talent, dedication, and determination on the part of judges, subordinate judicial officers, lawyers, court administrators, and court employees. California's court system has long been considered a leader in the nation, and that reputation is richly deserved.

Looking back over the past 75 years, it is also quickly apparent that the Judicial Council has played an integral part in enabling our branch to flourish. The council truly has assumed a leadership role in efforts that have resulted in a list of achievements greatly benefiting the public, the bar, the courts, and the overall administration of justice.

Anniversaries provide a time to pause and consider what we have accomplished and where we are headed. Each of you here tonight can take great pride in being part of—or in having been part of—the vital enterprise of administering justice for the people of the state of California. The individual members of the Judicial Council and its advisory committees and task forces, and the gifted staff who provide them with able support and assistance, have been—and always will be—the heart and soul of the Judicial Council.

As we celebrate the last 75 years and look to the future, I am confident that because of these individuals who care so deeply and contribute so much, the Judicial Council will continue to provide the leadership for our branch that will keep us strong, independent, accessible, and ready and eager to serve the people of our state.

And now, Bill Vickrey will have some comments on the 40th anniversary of the Administrative Office of the Courts.

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