Tuesday, September 11, 2001
State of the Judiciary Address by Chief Justice Ronald George
Lack of Access to Courts Threatens Public Confidence, Chief Justice Warns
State Bar Convention
Saturday, Sept. 8, 2001
Good morning. Let me begin by thanking the State Bar and the Conference of Delegates for inviting me to speak to you. I have enjoyed working with Palmer Madden and the bar’s Board of Governors during the past year, and extend my congratulations to Karen Nobumoto and the new members of the board. The Supreme Court, the Judicial Council, and I look forward to working with you in the year ahead.
The bar continues on the sure path to restoring its strength and redefining its role to better serve the attorneys of California and the people they represent. The Supreme Court has been very pleased with the board’s continued focus on improving governance, which in turn builds on the work that Justice Elwood Lui encouraged when he served as special master on behalf of the Supreme Court. The bar’s board is very ably assisted by a talented and dedicated executive team headed by Judy Johnson, and we continue to look forward to an exciting and constructive future for the State Bar.
The court system too is looking ahead. The last decade has been an era of tremendous change. In just the past four years, two fundamental structural changes have taken place in the judicial branch—the implementation of a system of state funding for the trial courts, and the unification of our 220 superior and municipal courts into a single level of court—with 58 trial courts, one in each of California’s counties. In creating what truly is now a state judicial system, these changes have had two significant and far-reaching benefits.
Having a stable funding source has made it possible for courts to plan for the future rather than focus on surviving one day at a time. At the same time, unification has helped eliminate needless duplication within and across county lines, so that judicial and other resources can be used where they are most needed within a county’s court system.
Together, state funding and unification play a fundamental role by strengthening the underlying structure of our system and permitting us to plan effectively, expand services, experiment with innovative programs, and consider and respond to public needs on a statewide as well as a local basis.
For many years, improving access and fairness in the courts has been the primary goal of the Judicial Council, the constitutionally created body that oversees the administration of the statewide judicial system, including a judicial branch budget of approximately $21/2 billion, and sets policy and adopts rules of practice and procedure for the courts. As chief justice, I chair the council, whose members are not only the judicial officers whom I appoint, but also four attorney members appointed by the State Bar, as well as two members appointed by the legislature. The council’s staff arm, the A.O.C. (the Administrative Office of the Courts), is led by its director, the tireless and dedicated Bill Vickrey.
The continuing quest to improve access and fairness has engaged every facet of the judicial system. Why have we placed so much emphasis on achieving this goal? The answer is fundamental: a strong and independent court system is indispensable to our democracy. If the motto “and justice for all” becomes “and justice for those can afford it,” we threaten the very underpinnings of our social contract. And every day, the administration of justice in our state is threatened by the erosion of public confidence caused by lack of access.
The population served by California’s courts is the most diverse in the world. Basic questions we must face are whether our judicial system is adequately meeting the needs of Californians, and whether it is perceived as fair and accessible to all. Let me start by stating that I believe our courts are doing a truly excellent job. But not only must we continue to strive for improvement, we must also get our message out to the public about the many steps the bench and the bar have been taking to improve our service to the public.
In 1999, a national poll on the public’s view of state courts conducted for the national center for state courts showed that the public at large, not simply members of minority groups, believe that minorities and non-English speaking individuals are treated less fairly by the court system. Local courts fell somewhere in the middle of public institutions in which the public rests its trust.
The problems faced by courts in promoting public confidence, however, involve more than dealing with hypothetical questions posed by a polltaker. Every day, individuals who have no familiarity with our system of justice appear in our courts. And every day, more than 100 languages are spoken and translated in courtrooms across California. A recent article observed that the Los Angeles court system alone uses “more interpreters than any other entity in the world, even more than the United Nations uses, on a daily basis.” Although we have established certification and registration programs to ensure competency, increased rates of pay by nearly 50% in 2 years, and increased recruiting and educational opportunities, we still have trouble meeting the need for interpreters.
Every courthouse is filled with apprehensive individuals whose sole experience with our legal system may have been a traffic ticket or jury summons and who are now seeking a marital dissolution, wanting to probate a will, or seeking to settle a contract. Too often these individuals may find themselves without an attorney, feeling lost in an intimidating system and unsure where to turn for help.
Legal aid providers and pro bono efforts go a long way in making a difference in the lives of many individuals by helping them maneuver through the intricacies of the court process. Beyond encouraging and applauding these traditional and vitally important efforts, however, our court system has begun to take a more direct and active role in dealing with the needs of persons who come to court but cannot afford legal assistance or do not know where to turn to obtain it.
People come to the courts to resolve problems that can affect all aspects of their lives. Administering justice requires courts to do more than simply present themselves as fair, objective, and detached arbiters of the legal questions brought to them for decision-making.
The courts have responded by initiating unprecedented and innovative programs aimed at improving access—often after consultation and cooperation with the state and local bar associations. These efforts already are having a positive effect on our system of justice, and their scope and impact continue to grow. I would like to talk today about a few of these programs. In fact, I am very pleased to say that there are so many, that I cannot touch upon them all in the time available to me this morning.
Last year, for the first time, the state of California, as part of its budget process, allocated $10 million directly for legal services to the poor. Creation of this equal access fund was urged by a broad coalition of public interest groups, along with the State Bar and the Judicial Council. Because of the fiscal crisis in our state, the amount of funding remained the same this year, but we shall ask again for an increase in these funds for the next fiscal year, while using the available funds in the current year’s budget to continue what has proved to be an exciting and highly beneficial program.
The equal access fund has been employed to provide resources for those needing assistance, including joint efforts between legal services programs and the courts to establish self-help clinics and other services for needy litigants. Self-help legal centers in courthouses in Van Nuys and Orange County have been created, pilot family law projects in Los Angeles, Fresno, and Sacramento, and a general civil program assisting litigants in five counties in the Gold Country. This is just one example of an expanding effort to match court and community resources and the needs of the public. The creativity demonstrated by courts and local bar associations in this area has been truly phenomenal.
Some courts have installed self-help kiosks with simplified forms and provided internet access to assist pro per litigants in following the necessary steps in a court case. The Ventura Superior Court has an award-winning, nationally acclaimed mobile self-help van that travels to different parts of the county to bring assistance to individuals who otherwise could not make it to the courthouse.
Other courts have conducted one-day special sessions—some held on Saturdays—for veterans and the homeless, in which representatives from the courts, social services organizations, other government offices, and veterans agencies provide one-stop problem-solving for everything from outstanding warrants, to claiming benefits, to obtaining housing or substance abuse counseling. Los Angeles’s Adoption Saturdays, a cooperative effort between bench, bar, and local social services agencies in which I recently personally participated, continues to make permanent families for children a reality sooner rather than later, and has served as a model for similar efforts in other locations.
Courts have developed a variety of exciting educational programs for local students and schools. In one, judges conduct one-hour classes with 8th grade students every other week. In another, 20 to 30 students from local high schools are treated as members of the press corps. They observe court sessions, conduct interviews, and write stories for submission to a website for public posting. Another court has a program focused on youth who have been involved in hate-motivated behavior, and in another court, an actual driving-while-under-the-influence trial is held before several hundred high school students.
The A.O.C. has established a nationally recognized center for families, children and the courts that has been at the forefront of innovations in handling the problems of these special constituencies. Unified or coordinated family courts are gaining popularity. They allow related problems that once were addressed separately in juvenile dependency and delinquency, marital dissolution, criminal, and probate proceedings, to be considered together in order to provide comprehensive solutions to problems faced by families and children.
Courts up and down the state are entering into partnerships with local bar and legal aid organizations to provide assistance and guidance to pro per litigants, particularly in the family law area, our fastest growing area of litigation with the greatest need for legal assistance. In fact, in many parts of the state, only 10% of the cases have legal representation on both sides.
More generally, a newly created task force on self-represented litigants will be taking a comprehensive look at the needs of these and other individuals who do not have the benefit of counsel. The Judicial Council’s standing committee on court-community relations, which is actively involved in bringing local communities into the court planning process, also will be contributing to our efforts to better meet the public’s needs.
I also am pleased to note the recent debut, on the Judicial Council’s website, of a very-well received new information resource. The “self-help” component of the website offers links to free and low-cost legal services. It has guides to law libraries, explains alternative dispute resolution alternatives, and describes generally what goes on at a courthouse, and where the local courthouse is located.
In addition, the site has links to more than 200 other resources and, perhaps most importantly, has pages specifically designed to provide unrepresented litigants with basic, practical information and forms concerning family law, traffic court, juvenile law, domestic violence, small claims, guardianships and conservatorships, and a variety of other topics.
This website is not intended to replace the assistance of counsel—or to suggest in any way that having a lawyer is not the best course of action. But it does recognize that until we have the resources available to provide the assistance every litigant needs, all too many individuals will be unable to vindicate their rights without some guidance. This kind of assistance should help these unrepresented litigants move their cases through the courts effectively—to the great benefit of the judicial process as well—and also can be used by other litigants to obtain basic information that will enable them to work better with the lawyer they do have.
In the first five weeks after the self-help site was installed, it has received more than 1 million hits. Every indication, from e-mail messages, radio call-in shows, telephone calls, and news articles, indicates that the website has been very well-received—by journalists, librarians, academics, even lawyers, and—best of all—by the laypersons for whom the system was designed.
Nor is this website a one-time effort. The 900 pages of information already on-line are being translated into Spanish. Some forms, particularly those concerning domestic violence restraining orders, already are available in Spanish, Korean, Vietnamese, and Chinese. And work is underway to add more subjects, in addition to the regular updating of information as we continue to expand and improve the site.
This resource is but one reflection of the courts’ interest in taking advantage of the latest technology to improve their service to the public. We are participating in a task force initiated by the attorney general’s office to make the integration of information services among the various justice-related entities a reality. We are working as well toward the goal of creating the capacity for statewide electronic filings.
And just last month, I participated in the dedication of a new complex litigation facility in the Orange Superior Court—designed to take advantage of technological advances—to scan and store documents filed in complex cases and make them widely available. Each courtroom in the new facility has been wired to permit attorneys to replace their litigation briefcases and boxes of documents with a laptop containing the same material. And the courtrooms are equipped to display, use, and store these documents easily.
This new facility also serves as a reminder that our focus on improving access crosses the spectrum of court users. Orange County’s new courthouse is tied into a larger complex civil litigation pilot program underway in six counties.
Based upon the recommendations of its complex civil litigation task force, the Judicial Council has gone far in providing tools to better handle these difficult matters. It has published a deskbook for handling complex cases, approved a specialized curriculum for judicial education in the management of these matters, revised related rules of court and forms, proposed useful amendments to statutes, and created a continuing Judicial Council oversight committee.
Building on this endeavor, Governor Davis initiated the pilot program, which the legislature funded, establishing pilot projects that began operating in January 2000 in courts located in 6 counties—Alameda, Contra Costa, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Santa Clara, in addition to Orange. Increased state funding has allowed participating courts to hire more research attorneys and to improve courtroom technology. These initial programs have proved very successful. After a formal report to the legislature is made in October of 2002, we intend to implement the most successful practices statewide.
We also have pilot projects to examine and evaluate the impact of mediation in civil court proceedings. Should it be part of a court provided resource, or paid for by the parties? At the same time, we are continuing to expand the use of targeted courts, such as domestic violence courts. And drug court judges and other personnel are working diligently to successfully implement proposition 36, adopted by the voters last year. The thrust of these projects goes far beyond the basic, self-contained four walls of the courtroom, and is aimed at connecting with other community resources to keep individuals from having to return to court and possible incarceration.
Another aspect of improving access is reflected in the Judicial Council’s task force on jury instructions. This group has been engaged in the difficult task of formulating jury instructions that correctly state the law—but do so in user-friendly lay language that jurors can understand more easily than the stilted phrasing of many existing instructions. Initial drafts of hundreds of proposed instructions have been circulated for public comment and possible refinement, and the response has been very positive. In fact, several State Bar sections, including the litigation and anti-trust sections, have become actively involved in assisting this task force. Response to the one-day-or-one-trial mode of jury selection similarly has been very favorable, and the council’s statewide jury task force is looking at other innovations to improve jury service. In fact, a statewide video broadcast on jury issues is scheduled to be aired in 15 to 20 locations for approximately 150 judges, and broadcasts on other issues are planned to video-download sites in every county.
The Judicial Council continues to adopt uniform rules of court in more areas of practice, pre-empting local rules, so that practitioners, who these days frequently traverse county lines on behalf of clients, can be assured that the practices followed in each county will be the same. A revised version of the first 18 appellate rules also is out for comment. This is the first global revision in more than 50 years, and promises to make the rules far easier to follow and to use.
Whether it is rendering legalese into plain English in forms and jury instructions, or using the latest technological tools to improve access, our court system is exploring all options to make courts more accessible and responsive to the people of our state.
This is a time of great challenge and opportunity for our courts, for the legal profession, and for the administration of justice in general. Social pressures, business and financial concerns, rising demands, increased expectations, instant communications, the ever faster pace of change—all test the ability of our institutions to respond.
The Judicial Council and many individual courts have taken the lead in meeting the public’s needs by choosing responsiveness over tradition-for-tradition’s-sake. We must continue to do so. A Gallup poll in the mid-90’s showed that only 15 percent of those responding were of the opinion that courts were meeting the needs of society—or would do so in the future. It is clear that the greatest challenge facing the judicial system is building the public’s confidence in the legal process. We take that challenge seriously and are pursuing all avenues to meet it by allocating resources effectively while remaining open to creativity and local needs.
I recognize that the State Bar itself and the practice of law have been through a series of upheavals in a relatively short period of time. Admirably, the bar already has taken a number of positive steps by focusing on more effective governance, on the needs of its constituents, and ultimately on its role in promoting the public good and the legal profession’s service to the public. The bar has been setting clear goals, planning for the future, effectively using resources, and positioning itself to be more responsive to the needs of all those it serves.
The cooperative efforts between the Judicial Council and the State Bar, in areas such as administering the equal access fund and encouraging pro bono contributions, have been very productive. More collaboration lies ahead. The Supreme Court’s task force on multijurisdictional practice includes many leaders, past and present, of the State Bar. The task force’s draft report is circulating for comment, and its final report should be delivered to the court by the end of the year. An American Bar Association committee also has provided the court with a report on California’s attorney discipline system—and we shall be evaluating its recommendations. And the bench-bar coalition, chaired by Mark Schickman, continues to provide valuable advocacy on behalf of our common legislative goals.
Although the practice of law can be a satisfying means of earning a good living, the satisfaction to be obtained from the profession of which we all are a part flows not merely from the paycheck we bring home to our families—important as that is—but also from what we give back to the community and to the administration of justice. Each of us can make an important contribution to improving access to justice in our state and increasing the confidence of the public whose interests we are dedicated to protecting and serving.
I look forward to continuing to work with the State Bar, local bar associations, and the individual lawyers of this state to strengthen and expand our efforts to ensure that accessible justice for all is not only our goal—but ultimately our achievement. I encourage each of you to take part in this crucial and exciting venture.
I appreciate and value this opportunity to speak with you. It has been a great pleasure to join you during your conference this week.
Copyright 2001, Metropolitan News Company