Chief Justice Speech - September 25, 2010

"REFLECTIONS BY CHIEF JUSTICE GEORGE"

State Bar Annual Meeting
Hyatt Regency, Monterey
Saturday, September 25, 2010

10:30 a.m. (Swearing-in Ceremony begins at 10:45 a.m.)

CHIEF JUSTICE RONALD M. GEORGE

Traditionally I have employed the occasion of these annual meetings to deliver a State of the Judiciary Address providing a sense of the achievements and challenges facing our state courts. This year I have been asked instead to share with you some perspectives on my tenure as Chief Justice of California, which is drawing to a close.

In the 10 weeks following my announcement that I would not seek re-election in November, I have spoken with many persons about this decision. Not once have I doubted it was the correct one. A 70th birthday this year focused my attention on a question recently posed by my family: why seek another 12-year term, they asked, after having authored hundreds of judicial opinions and overseen major administrative reforms in the judicial system? What more do you hope to accomplish other than refining and preserving what has been achieved?

Reflection convinced me this was the right time - to leave while the proverbial music still plays, and to return to private life.

The date of my announcement - July 14 - was intended to allow sufficient opportunity for a nomination to be made and confirmed by the Commission on Judicial Appointments in time for submission to the voters at the November election. Francophiles in the audience also will recognize that date as Bastille Day - an especially fitting occasion for a nod to my French father's heritage and for a personal declaration of liberty.

No greener pastures of employment tempt me, but the prospect of leisure time devoted to family, reading, and travel is irresistible. Seventy years is not an age too old for a person to occupy the office I am relinquishing. At the same time, I have served for 14 years in my present role, more than 38 years on the bench, and a total of 45 years in public service. I want to depart while I am young enough to pursue the richness of a life outside the law.

Despite these considerations, I could not in good conscience leave this post if California's judiciary remained enmeshed in a severe budget crisis. At no time in the foreseeable future is it likely there will be permanent funding sufficient to enable the courts to meet all the needs of the public we serve.

But through the efforts of many within and outside the judicial branch and the bar, the resource issues facing the courts have been resolved in a manner that will get us through the difficult budget year that lies ahead, without compromising our ability to provide fair and accessible justice to the individuals and institutions who come before the courts. And, without doubt, California's court system now is in a far stronger position to weather the challenges ahead than it was when I became Chief Justice 14 years ago.

The approaching conclusion of a professional career inevitably causes a person to reflect upon what prompted one to embark upon it in the first place. In my case, I entered college intending to pursue a career in the foreign service of the State Department. After hitchhiking around West Africa during the summer following my sophomore year and speaking to foreign service officers stationed there, I decided instead that a law degree would offer the most options for whatever form of public service I might choose to pursue. A course in constitutional law taught by Gerald Gunther at Stanford Law School inspired me to set my sights on a career as a public lawyer, which would offer a great number of ways to serve the community.

I was guided in large part by the circumstance that the law is a profession - not a business - and that the core obligations and expectations of a lawyer transcend personal interest and - at times - even the interests of one's clients. I was drawn by the transcendent importance of the rule of law to the society we live in. That basic aspiration - public service dedicated to strengthening and upholding the rule of law - has guided me throughout my career, as it has guided so many of you as lawyers and judges.

Our mutual dedication to the rule of law and to improving access to justice has culminated in the justified pride we all can feel in the accomplishments of California's judiciary and legal profession over the past several years. When I became Chief Justice, the difficulties caused by the uncertainties and inequities in county-provided funding of the trial courts had been manifest for some time. The quality of justice varied from court to court, depending upon the ability and willingness of the individual counties to adequately fund local courts in the face of competing demands for county services, and depending upon whether whoever was serving on the county board of supervisors that year had a good or a poor relationship with whoever was presiding judge that year.

By 1996, the state was undergoing yet another of its periodic fiscal crises, although one nowhere as severe as today's. When I assumed the position of Chief Justice that year, I was determined to improve the fiscal security of the trial courts, having already served as a member of the Judicial Council. To better understand the operations and challenges faced by the local courts, I embarked upon visits to the trial courts in each of our state's 58 counties, as well as to the appellate courts.

It soon became apparent that courts in counties large and small desperately needed additional resources to avoid substantial closures and cutbacks in courtroom and clerk's office services as well as widespread employee layoffs. This dire situation was highlighted when, in that first year as Chief Justice, I twice had to go to the Legislature to seek emergency bailout funding for the trial courts. A substantial portion of that aid went to the largest trial court, Los Angeles, while, during the same period, we had to hand-deliver checks to allow some of the smallest courts to meet their payroll.

Funding for basic services such as court interpreters and dependency counsel often was scarce. Courts were experiencing a surge in the number of self-represented litigants but had insufficient means to meet the needs of these individuals. Public access to court information at every level often was inadequate.

Facilities were falling into disrepair or simply not up to modern demands. During these visits, I encountered jurors congregating in stairwells and halls, and on sidewalks, because the court had no place for them inside, and one-day-or one-trial jury service was yet to be instituted. I saw prisoners being transported through clerk's offices and public hallways.

A jurist presiding in a rural one-judge courthouse showed me law books piled in front of the bench employed as a makeshift shield after an attempted armed hostage-taking. I was impressed by a Los Angeles court commissioner's construction - in his home workshop - of furniture for his courtroom, which itself was created partially out of a former utility closet.

It was clear long before I completed my 13,000 mile journey around the state that the lack of consistent and adequate funding made the administration of justice a day-to-day challenge, and inhibited effective planning for the future. Too often, courts were struggling in solitude to meet their obligations, without anywhere to turn. I found the equivalent of the wheel being reinvented in county after county and myself serving as an informal clearinghouse - recommending to one court that it contact another court, because I knew from an earlier visit that the other court already was successfully tackling a problem common to both courts. Trial courts had no mechanism to learn from each other, and resources were being wasted time and again.

I hasten to stress that it also was clear - and this has been a continuing source of inspiration to me - that the judges and court staff I encountered were overwhelmingly committed to public service, to their communities, and to the rule of law. They were creative and determined - qualities they still need to - and do - employ every day.

I also met with many attorneys during those visits. They described the impact of insufficient resources on themselves and their clients. Whether it was delays in obtaining documents from the clerk's office, the inability to secure the services of an interpreter for a client, or problems caused by shorter hours of court operations, lawyers experienced firsthand the harm caused by the inadequate resources available to our courts.

I entered my new role with a strong belief that state funding for the trial courts would accomplish several objectives.

  • It would raise the level of services across the state to an effective baseline;
  • It would provide courts with a stable and predictable level of funding;
  • And it would enable the judicial system to engage in productive planning.

State funding also was an important component in establishing the judicial branch as a functioning reality rather than merely an empty name or theoretical concept. Today, our branch of government is recognized as not simply a conglomeration of individual courts, but a full partner in our tripartite system of independent and co-equal branches of government.

State funding and the state bar convention are intertwined in my memory. The Legislature was still in session as the convention began in 1997. On the Friday night before I was to deliver my annual State of the Judiciary message to you, the Legislature stopped the clock at one minute to midnight and continued working. One unfinished item on its agenda was the bill creating state funding for the courts. Word came in the early morning hours that the law had been enacted, and I turned my attention to revising the address I was about to give. The hotel business office was closed for the weekend, and it seemed possible - in that electronically primitive era - that it might not be possible to produce a copy of my revised speech. As the minutes ticked away, I sent the security detail to locate a member of my staff who was racing around in search of a printer. A copy of the speech was delivered to me hot off a very slow machine as I sped off to your meeting, revising my remarks enroute up until the moment I was called to the podium. It was, in a word, exhilarating.

I told the Bar that morning that obtaining a stable and adequate source of funding for our courts without a doubt would be one of the most important reforms in the California justice system in the 20th century. Those high expectations certainly have been met.

After state funding, the next major structural change came in 1998, when the electorate, by a two-thirds majority, approved our proposal to amend the constitution to permit the unification of the 220 superior and municipal courts into 58 trial courts - one in each county. By 2001, the judges in all counties had voted to unify, vastly reducing many of the inefficiencies that had been apparent during my court visits.

Unification has allowed greater flexibility in the use of judicial and staff resources, eliminated duplicative functions, and allowed us to provide additional services such as collaborative justice courts, domestic violence courts, drug courts, and complex litigation courts.

The third major reform for our state judicial system came in 2002 with the Trial Court Facilities Act. It was followed by a $5 billion revenue bond measure in 2008 that provided funding for more than 40 of the most urgent projects - as well as a much needed economic stimulus with employment opportunities for many thousands of Californians. This enactment transferred responsibility - and in many instances ownership - of California's 532 court facilities from the counties to the state, under judicial branch management - a major new undertaking for the Judicial Council of California and its very able staff agency, the Administrative Office of the Courts.

These historic reforms - trial court funding, court unification, and the transfer of court facilities - have strengthened the independence and identity of the judiciary as a branch of government. They have addressed many of the institutional budget inequities among trial courts around the state. And ultimately they have enhanced access to justice and provided a greater degree of accountability by the courts to the public they serve.

Countless systemic improvements have flowed from these reforms, enabled in part by our improved ability to determine court-needs more accurately, to take advantage of best practices, to communicate effectively, and to engage in long-term planning on an informed and inclusive basis.

These structural reforms have enabled the judicial branch to launch a host of other measures to better serve the public. To name just a few of the many, these include jury reforms, increased accommodations for self-represented litigants, better outreach to the communities we serve, services to our non-English-speaking population, an ambitious courthouse construction project to replace or retrofit seriously unsafe facilities, a developing statewide case management system that will change the way courts and lawyers do business and deliver services and information, and recommendations to ensure diversity and fairness in our judicial branch.

These accomplishments could not have been achieved without close cooperation and consultation with the Legislature and the Governors who have been so committed to working with us and with our great partner, the California Judges Association. In fact, some of them, in recent years, have suggested that if I were to spend any more time advocating for the courts in Sacramento (and, by the way, also for the Bar), I would need to register as a lobbyist.

What truly has enabled the changes wrought in California's courts ultimately lies in our having the finest judicial system in the world and remarkable men and women who work in it. Our state has more than 1700 judges in its courts of record, assisted by hundreds of subordinate judicial officers and 21,000 court employees -the largest law-trained judiciary in the world. Leading California's judicial branch in its efforts to carry out our mission of providing fair and accessible justice to all Californians has been particularly rewarding during these times of great challenge, opportunity, and reform.

Still, enormous challenges remain. We have far too few judges in many areas of the state where population growth has greatly surpassed the addition of new judicial positions. The judicial retirement system must be improved to attract and retain the best in our profession. Services to the public need to be expanded and developed.

Justice is not simply a luxury to be adequately funded only in prosperous years. Times will continue to be hard - but together we must not just stand still or, worse yet, slip backwards, when confronted by the increasing demands upon the court system and the decreasing resources available to state government. We must continue with the progress we have made in expanding access to justice.

This leads me to what lies ahead. In my view, often no single decision made by a Governor has as much impact on his or her legacy as the selection of a Supreme Court justice - particularly a Chief Justice of California. I believe that the Governor's nominee for Chief Justice, Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, is the ideal person to assume the leadership of California's judiciary.

I know that I shall be leaving the future of the branch in the hands of an outstanding jurist who possesses an incisive mind, a commitment to access and fairness, and exceptional administrative and diplomatic skills. Whether leading the Supreme Court or the Judicial Council, I am confident she will build upon the achievements of the individuals who have preceded her as Chief Justice.

It is with enormous gratitude for the privilege to serve, and with great optimism about the future, that I conclude my time in public office. My gratitude begins with the four Governors who respectively entrusted me with the opportunity to serve at each level of California's court system - appointment by Governor Ronald Reagan to the Los Angeles Municipal Court, Governor Jerry Brown, to the Los Angeles Superior Court, Governor George Deukmejian to the Court of Appeal, and Governor Pete Wilson to the Supreme Court, first as an associate justice and then as Chief Justice. And throughout every step in my 45-year career in public service, my wife Barbara has been there with her love and support, without which I would not be standing here today.

Since my appointment to this last position, it has been my responsibility and pleasure to work with three governors - Governors Wilson, Davis, and Schwarzenegger - as well as successive Legislatures, in representing and improving our third branch of government. Each has played a profound role in our branch's development.

During my tenure, literally thousands of judges, court executives, lawyers, and others from every part of the state have served on the Judicial Council and its many advisory committees and task forces. Their work has been essential to our efforts - and, with the invaluable assistance of the Administrative Office of the Courts, led by Bill Vickrey and Ron Overholt, and their excellent team - these many individuals have strengthened and informed our efforts to ensure the quality, independence, and accountability of California's judiciary as a co-equal, independent branch of government.

And during that time, 14 dedicated Presidents and Boards of Governors of the State Bar, along with very able Bar staff, have made vital contributions to our shared goals, while the leadership and membership of local and specialty bars across the state have been of crucial assistance in our efforts to improve California's legal and judicial system.

Most of all, I feel very fortunate to have served with a group of colleagues on the Supreme Court - justices and staff alike - unmatched in their judgment, scholarship, professionalism, and collegiality. No person could ask for a more rewarding experience than engaging in a common effort to give meaning to the rule of law by collaboratively crafting judicial opinions which, during my 19 years on the court, have spanned 50 volumes of the Official Supreme Court Reports. The opportunity to play a role in seeking a just resolution of the issues that come before the court - issues of vital importance to all Californians and to the nation - always has given me the most personal satisfaction among the various responsibilities of my office.

Like most of you here this morning, I have devoted my career to the law and to the cause of justice. "Equal justice under law is not merely a caption on the facade of the Supreme Court building," former United States Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell once remarked. "It is perhaps the most inspiring ideal of our society . . . it is fundamental that justice should be the same, in substance and availability, without regard to . . . status." I certainly agree with that proposition. To me - and it was just as true when I began my legal career 45 years ago, as it is now as I leave the Supreme Court - justice never has been a matter of privilege and influence. To me, it always has been about the rule of law that lies at the heart of our democratic system of government.

I consider myself truly fortunate to have been able to serve in California's judiciary and to work together with so many extraordinary judges, lawyers, and staff. I wish each of you success in your own careers, as well as the great and abiding satisfaction that comes from the efforts you are making to ensure that the rule of law and access to justice continue to prevail.

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