Wednesday, March 16, 2005
Chief Justice George Urges Legislators to Create 150 More Judgeships
By a MetNews Staff Writer
California’s chief justice yesterday urged state legislators to create 50 new judgeships in each of the next three years.
Chief Justice Ronald M. George, speaking to a joint session of the Legislature, said creating up to 350 new judicial positions would be justified by the workload facing the state’s judicial system. However, he said in prepared remarks, “we are focusing on the 150 most needed positions, hoping to add 50 positions in each of three consecutive years.”
George also urged legislators to support plans, discussed last month at a Sacramento meeting of court officials, bar leaders, and legislators, to amend the state Constitution to provide a more stable method of funding the judicial branch.
The chief justice cited legislation creating more judgeships introduced by Sen. Joe Dunn, D-Garden Grove, and Sen. Dick Ackerman, R-Tustin. He said the legislation should also include “a provision to convert a limited number of our subordinate judicial officer positions to judgeships under specified conditions.”
George said that during the decade from 1989 to 1999, the number of judgeships in California increased by only 1 percent, while positions for commissioners and referees increased by 60 percent. As a result, the chief justice asserted, “almost one-fourth of superior court judicial positions are occupied by subordinate judicial officers, who are selected by the courts themselves and never stand for election.”
In some counties, he said, “instead of being used to perform the truly subordinate duties envisioned for these positions, court commissioners are acting as full-service judges because of the insufficient number of regular judicial positions.”
The chief justice added:
“The vast majority of these individuals perform at the highest levels and are truly dedicated to serving the public, but they should not become substitutes for judges, who can more flexibly be assigned to hear cases and who are subject to appropriate public accountability.”
George said a “key feature” of the proposed amendments to Article VI of the state Constitution, which deals with the judicial branch, would be constitutionalizing a procedure for setting a base budget for the state’s judicial system.
“Under legislation enacted last year,” George explained, “the State Appropriations Limit (or SAL), employed in determining increases in the Legislature’s budget, is now used to calculate increases in the trial court base budget. By placing in the Constitution this methodology of calculating base budget increases year-to-year, the stability of the judicial branch’s funding — and its accountability — would be more firmly established. Additional budget increases would have to be justified by the judicial branch before consideration and action by the Legislature and the Governor.”
The constitutional language, which is still being worked out and would have to be approved by the voters, would also include a “standardized procedure” for evaluating the need for new judicial positions—a procedure under which “necessary funding for new positions added to the branch’s base budget,” George said.
Also under consideration, George told the legislators, is the “possibility” of creating a commission to set judicial salaries, similar to the commission which currently sets the salaries of other state constitutional officers. The commission would be made up of seven members appointed by the governor or the Legislature and two attorneys appointed by the chief justice, George said.
The proposal would also include increasing the terms of superior court judges from six years to 10 to “keep judicial elections from becoming the focus of partisan attacks that can—and in some other states do—undermine the court system, while preserving accountability to the public,” George declared.
George also alluded to incidents of courthouse violence this week in San Fernando and in Georgia, telling the legislators that the state’s court buildings “are in a state of serious disrepair and, in some instances, dysfunctionality” which leaves security in two-thirds of them inadequate.
The chief justice recalled encountering a rural judge who had stacked law books in front of his bench to ward off possible attack.
“We need to make sure that courthouses are safe so that the law books can remain on the shelves where they belong—and not substitute for a bullet-proof shield,” he declared.
Copyright 2005, Metropolitan News Company