Chief Justice Speech - September 5, 2003

PRO BONO AWARDS
STATE BAR ANNUAL CONVENTION
CHIEF JUSTICE RONALD M. GEORGE
ANAHEIM, CALIFORNIA
SEPTEMBER 5, 2003

Good evening. I am very pleased and honored to be here once again to join in celebrating the accomplishments of the exceptional lawyers who are awarded these pro bono awards. This marks the eighth time since I became Chief Justice in 1996 that I have been privileged to be part of this occasion. I always look forward to this event, and it is one that I have described with admiration and appreciation in speaking to a wide variety of audiences.

There are two primary reasons why I enjoy participating in this event. First is the opportunity to learn about the award recipients and the endlessly creative and beneficial ways in which they have put to use their skills as lawyers on a pro bono basis. Second, this occasion serves as a reminder once again of what is best in our profession and of the fundamental value of service to the public that entitles us to call ourselves professionals, and not merely persons engaged in a business or trade.

Some 2500 years ago, the Greek historian Thucydides wrote, "Justice will not come to Athens until those who are not injured are as indignant as those who are." The lawyers we honor here today have turned their indignation into action. In doing so, they have helped to provide justice not only for their individual clients, but for our society as a whole.

As Chief Justice, I chair the Judicial Council of California, whose primary goals are to increase access and to ensure the fair administration of justice for everyone in our state. The Council is the constitutionally created body with responsibility for setting statewide policy for our court system and administering an overall budget of approximately $2.6 billion. We take seriously our role in ensuring that California's system of justice treats all individuals fairly and respectfully, is responsive to the community, and is meaningfully accessible to all who need its services.

As we all know, for many Californians access to justice is far from easy. Many impediments exist, caused by language and cultural difficulties, physical or emotional barriers, lack of money, and inadequate information about available services.

The Judicial Council, and its staff arm the Administrative Office of the Courts, in cooperation with courts, bar associations, lawyers, and related organizations, have focused on removing these impediments so as to ensure that the services of the courts are truly available to all those who require them. Among the many steps we have taken is the creation of a comprehensive website, now available on-line in Spanish, with portions available in other languages as well.

This site is designed to provide laypersons with a better understanding of court proceedings, and with easy-to-follow instructions in areas such as landlord/tenant, small claims, name changes, and guardianship and conservatorships. The site contains extensive family law information, including a very useful section on domestic violence restraining orders.

The Judicial Council and the courts have worked in many ways to improve service to persons who come to the courthouse. We have created certification programs so that individuals needing language interpretation in the courtroom can be assured that the interpreters helping them are properly trained and qualified. Courts are making better use of technology and providing more case-specific information on-line. We also are developing a case management system that can be used by courts statewide. Not only will an effective case management system help each court handle its own caseload, but it also will enable the system as a whole to better track and evaluate trends and to project needs.

Collaborative courts have been taking a new approach to defendants in cases involving domestic violence, drugs, and in — some instances — mental health problems. Working with local services providers, as well as with the prosecution and the defense bar, these courts have proved remarkably successful in helping defendants become contributing members of society. Such courts try to solve some of the underlying causes of the crimes committed by these individuals - and not simply to react to the end product, the crime.

Working with the state and local bar associations, many courts have created self-help centers located in the courthouse, and developed other programs to offer limited legal assistance to otherwise unrepresented litigants. Three years ago, for the first time, the Legislature provided $10 million for an Equal Access Fund to provide legal assistance for individuals unable to afford representation on their own. The fund is administered jointly by the Judicial Council and the Foundation of the State Bar.

It has proved very successful in supporting and encouraging programs to meet the day-to-day needs of many Californians who otherwise would be hard-pressed to find help with their legal problems. Each year, we hope that the fund will increase. This year, we fought hard to keep it from diminishing. Although we have not achieved the first objective - raising the amount of funding - we did achieve the second - keeping the existing funding in place despite the state's current budgetary crisis.

Our court system, like every part of government in California and across the United States as well as much of the private sector, has been experiencing difficult economic times. Because of state funding, in place since 1998, and unification of the trial courts, completed in 2001, our courts have been in far better shape to weather the storm. But that does not mean we have come through unscathed.

Courts have had to limit hours of operation, lay off staff, impose furloughs, and cut back on some of the services designed to make courts more user-friendly. At the same time, the public's need for low- and no-cost legal assistance to make appropriate use of the legal system continues to expand. And the closures and mergers and reorganizations of law firms state- and nationwide suggest that some lawyers and firms are finding it difficult to adapt to a new, leaner economic milieu.

That brings me to the individuals and firms that we are honoring today. The need for pro bono legal assistance is perhaps never greater than in a time of economic contraction. Whether it is a denial of public or private benefits, changes in child support and alimony payments, an inability to pay rent, an outstanding medical bill, an immigration problem, or some other problem, obtaining legal assistance can mean the difference between the successful resolution of a problem and a life-altering loss. Legal aid providers do a wonderful job in meeting these needs. But increasing pressures on the already inadequate resources that fund legal services make the pro bono contributions of lawyers even more important.

California's lawyers in many instances have stepped up to meet the challenge. Whether it is large law firms agreeing to sign a pledge to contribute a percentage of their time to providing pro bono assistance, or a solo practitioner volunteering to help a community organization with its legal work, every day lawyers make it possible for individuals to take advantage of what the legal system has to offer.

The scope of the problems handled by this evening's honorees provides a snapshot glimpse of a few of the many ways in which lawyers can and do make a difference. Those we honor today come from every part of California, and these awards are designed to ensure recognition of individuals from all types of practices. You already have heard about some of them from Jim Herman. I have the honor of describing the others.

For example, eight attorneys who are in-house counsel for State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company are part of the Barry Bartholomew & Associates Pro Bono Adoption Group in Glendale. Organized by group leader Cassandra Wentt and working with the Alliance for Children's Rights and the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services, these lawyers have prepared the necessary documents and made court appearances to finalize 17 adoptions involving 22 children in 2002. Presently, they are also handling uncontested guardianships as well.

I have assigned myself to be a judge of the Superior Court for the day and had the privilege of presiding over a courtroom during a special Adoption Saturday held in Los Angeles. Those are days on which adoptions are finalized - being expedited through the pro bono contributions of local lawyers, judges, and court staff in coordination with local officials and agencies responsible for adoptions. Being part of creating a stable and permanent home for a child — and watching new parents enthusiastically embrace the challenge of parenthood — is a wonderful contribution as well as a rare privilege.

Michael Ford from Fillmore is a recent admittee who practices in a small rural law firm. Much of his practice is dedicated to helping the homeless, many of them mentally disabled, with criminal and civil matters. This is a population that it is often difficult to assist, but Mr. Ford spent more than 700 hours on 150 cases helping more than 320 individuals in this year alone. He assists the homeless each Friday morning at the Ventura County Superior Court's Mobile Self-Help Center.

That Mobile Center is an award-winning innovation that takes court services into communities whose residents otherwise might have to travel long distances to obtain legal assistance. I understand that Mr. Ford became a lawyer with the specific intention of assisting underrepresented individuals and communities, and without question he has stayed true to his commitment.

Pro bono help comes from large law firms as well as individual practitioners. Latham & Watkins, an international law firm, is a signatory to the Law Firm Pro Bono challenge, and was a founding member of the project that led to the creation of the challenge. It is committed to devoting an annual average of 60 hours per lawyer to free legal representation. Three of its California offices, in Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Francisco, are being recognized for their outstanding efforts in 2002.

The firm's Los Angeles and San Francisco offices, in the days following September 11, 2001, helped create a pro bono project for California families affected by the tragedies that took place in New York and Washington. They assisted clients with a wide range of problems and mentored and co-counseled other attorneys in handling the Federal Victims' Compensation Fund. Overall, in 2002, approximately 40 attorneys in these two offices devoted some 2,365 hours partnering with the Volunteer Legal Services Program of the Bar Association of San Francisco, the Los Angeles County Bar Association, and Public Counsel.

San Francisco attorneys from the firm also were involved with the pro bono project of the Asian Pacific Islander Legal Outreach program, and attorneys in the Los Angeles Office joined with the Inner City Law Center in a case involving the collapse of a substandard apartment building that killed one tenant, injured many others, and left more than 100 tenants homeless. Amos Hartson, coordinator of the Los Angeles pro bono committee, provided 500 hours of direct pro bono services himself in September 11-related cases, to unaccompanied juveniles in INS detention, and in unlawful detainer cases, among others.

In San Diego, associate Shannon Petersen spent more than 1,000 hours representing a severely disabled 9-year old in a difficult and complex case against a school district. Although he and his colleagues did not prevail in the specific case, they did bring about changes in the district's use of restraints on disabled children.

The firm of Latham and Watkins encourages this wide range of contributions by crediting time spent on pro bono work as fully billable, and treating these hours the same as all other time for purposes of compensation, advancement, and supervision.

I am pleased to acknowledge one more of tonight's award recipients, Kimberly Stewart, a Senior Appellate Attorney for the Court of Appeal, Fourth Appellate District, Division One.

I should note here that Jim Herman and I had to draw straws to decide who would speak about which honorees. They are all so remarkable, that we each would have been pleased with any division of the task.

Ms. Stewart has co-chaired the Women's Resource Fair, an annual community outreach event targeted to low-income women and children affected by homelessness, domestic violence, or other social problems. The San Diego Volunteer Lawyer Program is one of the sponsors of this event, which helps some 400 women and more than 150 children obtain legal, medical, and social services. More than 50 experts in social services, shelter, employment training, and educational programs participated in last year's event, and Ms. Stewart's involvement was crucial in its successful conclusion. And she already is working on the 2004 program.

I have first-hand knowledge of the demands placed on appellate attorneys in the Courts of Appeal and in the Supreme Court. The nature of their work can make it difficult to find areas in which to contribute their time and talents freely - and their time is occupied by very demanding responsibilities. Ms. Stewart's contributions are an excellent demonstration of how government lawyers, even those working for the courts, can help make a difference.

This evening, we honor the award recipients for a wide range of contributions and a singular dedication to a common goal - making the administration of justice truly available to all. In turn, they honor all of us by reminding us of the highest calling of our profession. We are each officers of the court, and we are each practitioners of what has been called a noble and learned profession. As such, we each have obligations and responsibilities that extend far beyond the bottom line.

Jerome Shestack, a former President of the American Bar Association, once observed: "I recognize that pursuing professionalism is not a sport for the short-winded. It requires constancy, commitment and all the resources available within the organized bar." The individuals here tonight have demonstrated that they can stay the course.

The rule of law remains central to the issues and concerns of our ever more complicated and interconnected world. Our definition of a democratic system includes — as a fundamental requirement — an independent and fair judicial system, and it is incumbent on all of us to safeguard this value.

In this time of uncertainty, we must remain ready to ensure that the core principles of freedom that form the basis of our government remain strong. When the future is not easy to predict, whether at home or abroad, it is easy to become preoccupied with one's own stability and to hesitate to reach out or make an extra effort.

But lawyers have unique training that enables them to truly make a difference. The positive impact on individual lives of the many projects and the contributed hours we have heard about today is incalculable - but would not have occurred without the assistance of these individuals trained in the law and committed to justice. To build on the quotation from Thucydides with which I began: "Justice comes to California when those who have the skills to help the injured come forward to help them."

There remains a great deal more to be done. There are many unmet legal needs in our state. Our courts are committed to continuing our quest to understand and respond to appropriate community needs - and to ensuring that justice is accessible to all. We are fortunate that so many in the bar are equally committed to the same goals and are acting every day to achieve them. Together — bench and bar — we serve as a powerful force enhancing and protecting the administration of justice in our state and in our nation.

Congratulations to each of those we honor tonight. It is indeed a pleasure to be here. Thank you for your fine work and the example you set for us all.

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