Chief Justice Speech - June 16, 2004

PUBLIC COUNSEL
WILLIAM O. DOUGLAS AWARD
CHIEF JUSTICE RONALD M. GEORGE
LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA
JUNE 16, 2004

Good evening. First, I want to thank Senator Joe Dunn for his generous introduction and — beyond that — for being a tireless and well-informed supporter, in Sacramento and around the state, of our judicial and legal systems. I also want to extend my congratulations to the others who are receiving well-deserved recognition this evening.

I feel deeply honored to receive this award from Public Counsel. However, I accept it not simply on my own behalf, but rather as a representative of the more than 1,600 judges and 19,000 court employees who comprise the judicial branch of California — which may be the largest single court system in the world — and who are working hard to improve the administration of justice for all Californians.

It is a humbling experience to receive an award, named after United States Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, that in the past has been conferred upon so many outstanding individuals of national prominence, from so many walks of life. It is an experience only slightly less humbling than it was for me to appear as a young advocate — in six oral arguments, more than three decades ago — before Justice Douglas himself and his eight black-robed colleagues, and be pummeled with a constant barrage of probing questions and comments from the bench of the high court.

I am especially pleased and honored to be here because of the leadership role Public Counsel has played and continues to play in providing legal and related assistance to those individuals who otherwise would be unable to vindicate their legal rights. Last year, Public Counsel provided the equivalent of some $47 million in legal services — a figure that reflects the Los Angeles community's active commitment to pro bono contributions — and the scope of the need that Public Counsel, and organizations like it, are trying to meet.

Public Counsel maintains a highly regarded staff of 50 professionals. I was struck by the fact that it has a 62-member board, drawn from prominent business leaders and lawyers. The fact that a board that size not only is manageable, but has been able to achieve so much, is a great tribute to Public Counsel's supporters and employees. So is Public Counsel's ability, last year, to attract more than 3,300 volunteers, including lawyers, business persons, students, social workers, administrative assistants, and many more, to contribute their efforts to make a difference in the lives of so many.

Organizations such as Public Counsel have a crucial role to play in ensuring access to justice for all. It has increasingly become clear, however, that the court system itself must also assume a leadership role in making our system of justice fair and accessible to all. Together, the courts, the bar, and public service organizations form a powerful force for meeting critical needs of the public.

I would like to speak to you this evening about some of the improvements to access to justice I have seen during my 8 years as Chief Justice of California — and why we must remain vigilant in supporting them. During that time, California's courts — like judicial systems throughout our nation — have embraced the need to take steps to ensure that courts are truly accessible to those who need them. In assuming this responsibility, courts have cast a critical eye on every aspect of their operations — paying close attention to the reasonable needs and expectations of the public. It has been repeatedly demonstrated that courts achieve their greatest successes in enhancing their service to the public when the judicial system collaborates with other interested and affected segments of the community, including, of course, the bar.

The word "court" traditionally conjures up a vision of two lawyers standing before a black-robed judge seated on an elevated bench, arguing a matter that the judge will resolve by rendering a decision. That decision then will be carried out by the parties — usually outside the sight of the court. The gulf between that vision and the reality of our courts today perhaps has never been greater.

In many proceedings, particularly in family law, neither party to a dispute has a lawyer or can obtain one. Many of California's courts report that 80 percent of those persons seeking a divorce or child custody or child support are not represented by counsel, and that the same is true of 90 percent of those persons seeking domestic violence restraining orders and 90 percent of the tenants in landlord/tenant cases.

Reflecting California's increasingly multicultural society, a growing number of our state's litigants do not speak English but instead one of the approximately 100 languages that are translated every year in California's courts — literally running the gamut from "A" to "Z" — Albanian to Zapotec. These changes in the population of those who come before the courts challenge our preconceptions about the courts — and demand of us that we respond creatively.

Ensuring effective access based on community needs is critical to the ability of the courts to meet the changing expectations and needs of the public. Public Counsel lists six practice groups: immigrant rights, consumer law, child-care law, children's rights, community development, and homelessness prevention. Individuals with claims in each of these subject areas need specialized assistance in order to take advantage of what courts and the judicial process can offer them. Access to justice for these individuals signifies far more than providing them with an open courthouse door — it includes allowing meaningful access so that they can vindicate their rights.

The resolution of a legal issue can profoundly affect an individual's future. Will a family be able to stay together? Can a disabled child obtain the care and assistance to which he is entitled? Can an elderly homeowner keep her only asset, her home? Will the veteran whose life has been derailed by substance-abuse find his way back to a productive life?

Often the small cases that set no precedent nonetheless will have a life-changing impact on an individual or a family. Let me give you a few examples presented at a recent meeting of the Judicial Council, which as Chief Justice I chair. This is the constitutionally created body charged with setting statewide policy for the judicial branch of California and with administering and allocating its $2.6 billion budget in this time of limited governmental resources.

At this meeting, we heard from judges, court administrators, and members of the bar — all of whom were forceful and effective in their descriptions of the difficulties brought about by years of funding reductions and the ensuing detrimental impact on the public's access to justice. But the most eloquent of all the speakers were those individuals — the "real people" as they were called — whose lives had been touched by services that were at risk because of decreases in resources.

One woman explained how a court-sponsored legal-aid project helped her clear up traffic citations and fines so that she could get back her driver's license. That in turn meant she could work to support her 6 children and disabled husband.

A former prison guard described how drug court helped him kick his drug habit and gave him the information, structure, and support he needed to turn his life around again — this time for the better.

One CASA worker — a Court Appointed Special Advocate — told the story of first meeting a 16-year-old girl in juvenile hall, a girl who was trying to provide her younger siblings with the stability their parents could not, but who had succumbed to the drug and alcohol abuse learned from those same parents. This young woman had made remarkable progress in beating her addiction, finishing high school, going on for more education, and returning as a counselor to the drug rehabilitation center that had helped her.

As she began to read a prepared statement on what the CASA volunteer had done for her, she lost her composure — as did many others in the room — while she explained in direct words how the volunteer's support and belief in her had changed her life.

The Los Angeles Superior Court's Adoption Saturdays is a project made possible in large part by Public Counsel and its encouragement of volunteer contributions by lawyers and staff, with the cooperation of Michael Nash, the Presiding Judge of the Los Angeles Juvenile Court. The program enables families with children in foster care to move through the system to adoption in far less time. Children who otherwise might be stranded in uncertainty find a permanent home. A few years ago, as Chief Justice, I assigned myself to be a judge of the Los Angeles court for the day so that I could participate by presiding over several adoption hearings.

At our recent Judicial Council hearing, we heard from a woman accompanied by a young daughter whom she had adopted at one of the Adoption Saturday sessions. This woman had adopted a total of 3 children, all of whom had inherited drug-addiction at birth but were doing very well under her care — and she was effusive about the assistance that had enabled her to complete the adoptions. Her 10-year-old daughter read a statement in her own words about what it meant to her to be adopted and finally have a permanent home. Her mother also proudly announced that the girl was getting straight A's in school.

These witnesses gave a face to the policy determinations that the Judicial Council — and individual courts — must make.

The point I wish to make is that when we speak of policies to improve access and of making services available to a broader segment of the community, it is easy to think in merely abstract terms. We must never lose sight of the fact that real people with real problems are involved — and that with what is often a remarkably small investment of time, individual lives can be turned around.

There are thousands of stories similar to the ones the Judicial Council heard that day. How well we meet the needs of those who depend upon courts to vindicate their rights is crucial to our ability to maintain the vital and independent system of justice that is integral to our democratic form of government. Courts have no army at their disposal to support their role, no source of revenue independent of the goodwill of the executive and legislative branches of government, and no built-in constituency to lobby on behalf of accessible justice. Instead we rely upon the trust and confidence of the public we serve in order to function effectively. In the final analysis, it is our ability to provide justice for all that creates our strength. How well we succeed in this endeavor says much about us as a society.

When I became Chief Justice of California in 1996, I was invited to deliver a State of the Judiciary Address two weeks later to a joint session of the Legislature. During that address, which has become an annual tradition, I made a commitment that some thought I should be committed for making - which was to visit the courts in each of California's 58 counties, something no prior Chief Justice had attempted. Accompanied by our very able Administrative Director of the Courts, Bill Vickrey, who is here tonight, I completed those visits during my first year as Chief Justice.

What we learned — and what we were able to communicate in those visits with judges, court employees, lawyers, and community leaders — helped lead to the successful implementation of many of the changes that have increased meaningful access to — and community involvement in — our courts. I shall highlight just a few of these initiatives, but I hope they will give you a sense of how broadly our courts have interpreted their mission to improve access and fairness in our justice system.

At the urging of the judiciary, two major structural revisions in the court system were enacted that fundamentally changed how courts do business. First, our budget switched to a system of state funding from an uneven and undependable system that had relied primarily on the individual counties. State funding has permitted us to develop a more equitable, accurate, and responsive financial system that allows us to document needs and use resources responsibly.

The next great reform was the unification of the trial courts from two levels — municipal and superior — into one unified superior court. This allowed courts to eliminate duplication and use existing resources, both judicial and administrative, with greater flexibility. These basic structural realignments have provided more resources that in turn allow courts to explore new techniques and programs. We went in a very short period of time from having 220 trial courts to 58 — one in each county.

For example, courthouse family law facilitators now are at work in every county, helping people navigate their way through the crucial proceedings of family law — divorce, child custody and support, and domestic violence. Many local courts have developed self-help centers that focus on serving individuals who are not fluent in the English language. Some courts now offer regional services in rural areas, even providing vans that travel to remote parts of the county that otherwise are underserved.

At the urging of the Judicial Council and the State Bar, the Legislature began to provide an annual appropriation for an Equal Access Fund to aid unrepresented litigants in civil cases, through Public Counsel and other organizations. This has enabled us to establish self-help centers at courthouses with the assistance of legal-services providers.

Community participation in court planning is now commonplace. Juvenile peer courts, community evenings where judges answer questions from members of the public, educational programs in local schools that teach our children about our judicial system and why it is important to them — all of these are part of the process of increasing community access and finding new tools for courts to better interact with their communities.

Collaborative courts, focusing on cases involving drug use, domestic violence, or mental health problems, have had remarkable success. These courts work closely with prosecution and defense counsel, local probation departments, education providers, therapists, and various social services and other community agencies to create programs that are fashioned to affect the underlying problems that often are the cause of the criminal behavior that lands an individual before the court.

Court involvement does not end with adjudicating guilt or innocence and imposing sentence. Instead, it encompasses trying to change the underlying conduct and conditions that led to the offense. One court commissioner testified before the Judicial Council that the drug treatment courts in her county had flipped the statistic on success rates for defendants. Where, previously, 80 percent were projected to re-offend within two years after release from custody, after drug court 80 percent were still successfully free of drugs after 2 years. Such individuals are required to seek and maintain employment, and often the result is a reunited family. It has been a joyful experience for me to attend drug court graduations and see lives that truly have been turned around.

All this also makes economic sense when one considers the cost of keeping an individual in custody, the benefits to society from creating a tax-paying, productive, and consumer citizen, and the financial as well as emotional cost of placing children in foster care when they have to be removed from their home because of their parent's substance abuse.

Our court system has significantly expanded its use of technology in the last few years. We have installed interactive self-help kiosks in many courthouses, equipping them with user-friendly forms. We are in the process of simplifying our court rules. Perhaps the most impressive technological achievement is our self-help website, which provides a broad array of services online. Its more than 900 pages of information already have been translated into Spanish, and large portions are being made available in other languages commonly spoken in California.

More than 1.6 million visitors used the site last year. It contains all 580 Judicial Council forms for use in court proceedings — forms that now can be completed online. It offers background information on the court system and on individual courts, as well as practical information on how to proceed — including directions to the local courthouse. The website offers links and directions to where one can obtain additional assistance — legal and otherwise, for example, information pertaining to nearby domestic violence shelters — and has links to a host of other law-related websites. It already has won awards — but most importantly, it has demonstrated that online access to information about the courts is a remarkably useful resource for the public.

Jury service has been made less burdensome and more inclusive of a broader spectrum of our population through the one-day or one-trial mode of jury selection. Having shown up for jury service myself in response to summonses I received the last few years — both under the old system and the new — I can assure you that we've made substantial progress in improving the system. Jurors in civil cases also are getting the benefit of our new plain-English jury instructions that are rendered by the trial judge to guide them in their deliberations, and we hope to have the set of instructions for criminal cases available next year.

Even our California Supreme Court has gotten into the spirit of reaching out to the public - both with modern technology and by more conventional means. Our written decisions now are available to the public electronically within seconds of their posting at the clerk's counter. And in the last two years, our court held oral argument in locations — Fresno and San Jose — other than our traditional venues of San Francisco, Sacramento, and Los Angeles.

These special oral argument sessions were broadcast live by television to high school classrooms in the surrounding area. Hundreds of students prepared by reading the briefs and other materials created by local judges, court staff, lawyers, and the school system. Immediately following the telecasts, which included a question-and-answer session between students in the courtroom and the seven justices on the bench, classroom discussions were held with the assistance of mentor lawyers and judges from the community. The courtroom sessions also were carried statewide on the public broadcast network and were a tremendous success in terms of stirring community interest and involvement. They also performed the vital service of educating the public by electronically expanding the walls of the classroom and the courtroom. Our court is planning its next special session in San Diego this coming December.

California's court system has experienced enormous innovation during the past several years — but there is no guarantee that the road ahead will be easy, and we are far from meeting all the needs of the public we serve. As you know, like many other states, California faces tremendous budget challenges. Because of several years of reductions in funding, some courts have had to lay off staff, cut back the hours of clerks' offices operations, close courtrooms for an afternoon or a day a week, and even shut down some court locations. There are innovative programs among those that I have described to you that are at serious risk.

California's judicial branch is fortunate to have been able to work closely with the other two branches of government. I have had dozens of meetings with individual members of the Legislature and with the Governor and his administration, emphasizing the need for adequate court funding and the essential role that the courts play in our democracy. The message that must be conveyed to those who wield the purse-strings in Sacramento and Washington is that the courts are not a mere luxury — to be funded in times of prosperity, and neglected in bad times. Their funding should not rise and fall with the ebb and flow of capital gains revenue received from the dot.com industry.

The judicial system is not simply another bureaucratic agency — it is one of the three separate and co-equal branches of our government. If it cannot function, it puts our entire government system — and the rule of law — at grave risk. And events on both the national and international level suggest that our focus on the rule of law must remain as intense as ever.

As our courts strive to maintain their core services to the public, the continued dedication and contributions of organizations such as Public Counsel are more critical than ever. As I stated in a recent address to the California Legislature, "If the motto 'and justice for all' becomes 'and justice for those who can afford it,' we threaten the very underpinnings of our social contract."

The law has long been proud to call itself a profession — and not a business. The pressures of the bottom line are intense for those in every type of practice — and for courts as well. Practicing law may be the way to earn a living — but earning a living should not be the only reason to practice law. Large law firms in the San Francisco Bay Area, at the joint urging of federal Chief Judge Marilyn Hall Patel and I, have signed pledges to devote 3 to 5 percent of their billable hours to pro bono work.

In my view, by increasingly turning the focus on pro bono contributions and on public service, the bench and bar of California — together with Public Counsel and others in the community — have greatly advanced the cause of justice in our society, while those who volunteer their efforts also enrich their own personal lives.

This is an exciting and challenging time to be involved in the administration of justice. Once again, thank you for this wonderful award - and thank you for inviting me to speak with you tonight. I look forward to continuing to work with you to improve access and justice for all.

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