Tuesday, September 13, 2005
Text of Chief Justice Ronald M. George’s State of the Judiciary Address
I want to begin by thanking John Van de Kamp and the Board of Governors of the State Bar for their excellent work during the past year. Among other achievements, the Bar has completed the comprehensive planning process begun a few years ago and inspired by the Administrative Office of the Courts. The Bar honored its commitment to take a close look at how it operates, and I firmly believe that the results of this planning process will be positive and readily apparent in the years ahead as various recommendations are implemented and as continued self-scrutiny takes place. Former Justice Elwood Lui, appointed special master by the Supreme Court when the court imposed bar dues after Governor Wilson vetoed the dues bill, recommended that the Bar utilize an organized planning approach for the future. I congratulate the Board and the executive staff of the Bar, led by Director Judy Johnson, on their demonstrated interest in improving the Bar’s ability to serve the public, the courts, and the attorneys of California.
Congratulations too to James Heiting, the incoming President of the Bar. I know that he will continue the long tradition of close cooperation between the Bar and bench. The Bar has been a steadfast supporter of a strong and independent judicial branch, and we look forward to working together to continue our efforts to ensure that Californians receive the quality of judicial administration and legal service that they require and deserve.
I also want to thank Judge James Mize, from the Sacramento Superior court, for his leadership of the California Judges Association. He and his board have actively represented their member judges in many of the activities we have had concerning the future of the judicial branch. I look forward to continuing to work with incoming C.J.A. President Judge Terry Friedman, from the Los Angeles Superior Court, and his new board. Judge Friedman, as a former legislator, brings valuable insight into the Judicial Branch’s interactions with the legislative and executive branches.
The State Bar and the California Judges Association historically have arranged joint meetings. This year, the Judicial Council coordinated its statewide judicial administration conference with the Bar’s and CJA’s events. The purpose of this joint venture was to emphasize and enhance the partnership among the various constituencies that make up the judicial branch and the legal profession, and to provide an opportunity for a coordinated look at the statewide administration of justice.
During the past decade, the judicial branch has undergone dramatic structural changes, including the shift from county to state funding of the trial courts, the unification of 220 municipal and superior courts into 58 courts — one in each county, with a single level of trial court — and the first stages of the shift of ownership and management responsibility for California’s 451 courthouse facilities from the counties to the state. All these changes have been encouraged and embraced as part of the judicial branch’s focus on creating a strong judicial branch that is better equipped to ensure that it can administer fair and objective justice for all.
By creating a stronger infrastructure for the judicial branch, stabilizing its funding system, taking more responsibility for fashioning its future, and standing accountable for our decisions in these areas, we are building a strong platform for the judiciary to successfully maintain its effort to uphold the rule of law — a vital component of our democratic society.
The task is far from done. The role of courts in our tripartite form of government has been a subject of intense focus of late. Our judicial branch is designed to play a very different role from that of the representative branches of government, the Legislature and the Executive.
Courts are — and should be — expected to decide cases as determined by law and precedent, not by poll results or popular preference. At the national level, there have been various attempts to sway judicial decision-making, from the introduction of bills to strip courts of jurisdiction, to calls for removal from office of the authors of judicial opinions reaching results which some find objectionable. In California, misunderstanding about how courts decide cases — and the basis upon which those decisions should be made — is common. Those who disagree with decisions at times criticize the results in terms of political considerations, rather than on the basis of legal analysis.
It is incumbent on all of us involved in the administration of justice to ensure that the judicial branch remains able to maintain its proper role as an objective forum for the resolution of legal disputes. Whether as judges or lawyers, or simply as members of the public, we all have a vital interest in preserving this fundamental principle of governance — and we all have an obligation to expend our efforts to do so.
The Bar’s support of the judicial branch has been crucial in the past, and will continue to be so. I would like to give you some notion of several ongoing activities of importance to the branch in which your support would be very helpful.
As you know, the Judicial Council is the constitutionally created body charged with setting statewide policy for the courts. It is assisted by its staff arm, the Administrative Office of the Courts — led by its very able Director, Bill Vickrey. The Council’s many advisory committees, with members drawn from the judiciary, the Bar, and other interested contributors to the system, provide essential guidance and information for the council. If you have not visited our website, www.courtinfo.ca.gov, I invite you to do so to obtain some sense of the broad range of activities in which the Council is engaged.
One area under exploration is amending the judicial article of the California Constitution, article VI. Legislators interested in the operation of the judicial branch and in preserving an accessible and independent judiciary, suggested studying potential amendments to advance these goals. Staff developed a set of draft proposals that looked at the question from a variety of angles.
Among other changes, these proposals would ensure stable base funding, provide a mechanism for the creation of necessary new judicial positions, create an independent commission to review and adjust judicial pay, expressly incorporate the Supreme Court’s authority over the State Bar into constitutional language modeled on cases describing this authority, and mandate the Judicial Council to establish policies to promote access and the administration of justice. It even requires the Chief Justice to give an annual State of the Judiciary address to the Legislature — something I have done since 1996.
A workshop on the proposed amendments was held with members of the Judicial Council, other judicial, legislative, and executive branch leaders, and representatives from the state and other bar associations. If the Council decides to proceed with efforts to place this proposal on the ballot, the Bar will be very important to its success. We shall keep you apprised.
Two measures already pending in the Legislature would affect basic operations. The first is a judgeships bill, Senate Bill 56 by Senator Joe Dunn, who has been a great friend to the judiciary, along with his colleague from across the aisle, Senator Dick Ackerman. This measure would create critically needed new judicial positions. Since 1980, the total number of judges in the trial courts has grown by approximately 20 percent — but the total population in California grew by more than 50 percent in this period. The need is particularly acute in the Central Valley and Inland Empire, where the population has more than doubled in some areas.
Having too few judicial officers affects justice across the board. It delays civil cases, creates pressure to plea bargain in criminal cases, discourages the business community from using the public court system, causes difficulties and delay in family law matters, and generally places the court system in a struggle to meet reasonable public needs. The bill has passed the Assembly but has not yet passed the Senate, and your support — if not this year, then next — will be crucial. A study conducted by the National Center for State Courts for the Judicial Council has documented the need for approximately 355 more judges statewide, but we are seeking only 150 new judgeships — 50 in each of the next three fiscal years — to add to the existing 1630 judgeships. Every year’s delay means the courts fall further behind.
Senator Martha Escutia’s bill on the court facilities bond also is pending. It will provide additional funding to implement the transition from county to state ownership and management responsibility for California’s 451 court facilities. We must have courthouses that are safe, secure, and up to the task of providing appropriate services. Too many facilities are deficient under earthquake standards, have inadequate technological capabilities, do not provide security for judges, court employees, jurors, litigants, and lawyers, and simply cannot meet the demands for space and services. The people of California deserve courthouses that meet their needs. This measure will help make that a reality.
There also have already been some achievements this year very much worth noting. This legislative session already has seen the adoption of a bill that allows the for establishment of a statewide uniform enhanced civil assessment program. This ties in with our efforts to encourage more uniformity across the state where appropriate.
Another major milestone was the recent adoption and issuance by the Judicial Council of comprehensive new jury instructions for criminal cases. This enormous effort began 8 years ago, and was led by Court of Appeal Justice Carol Corrigan. She and the members of her committee and AOC staff spent literally thousands of hours on developing plain English instructions that accurately describe the law in clear and modern language, following the successful effort of Court of Appeal Justice James Ward to complete such instructions in the area of civil law two years ago. Also moving through the Legislature is a bill we are supporting, Senate Bill 874, to require employers of 100 or more persons to pay their employees their salary for the first five days of jury duty if the employer chooses to enter into a contract for goods or services with any state agency.
The Judicial Council continues to focus on issues of importance to children and families. For example, the Council recently received a report from The Family Juvenile Law Advisory Committee on the “California Juvenile Dependency Court Improvement Program.” The report noted the progress made in dependency courts to date and recommended additional means to improve the system, and to increase stability and permanency for children and families. The Council also is working to improve the handling of domestic violence matters and is studying the recent Attorney General’s report on this subject for helpful guidance on areas to target.
There is a great deal more underway, but I want to spend a few moments speaking about public trust and confidence. At the opening session of the judicial conference here on Tuesday morning, the results of the latest poll of the public’s views concerning the court system was released. It showed that public confidence in the courts was noticeably higher than that expressed in a similar survey in 1993, but that there is ample room for improvement.
Public familiarity with the court system remains low. The experience of serving as a juror increases confidence, but other experiences, such as traffic and family law court, do not. The cost of hiring counsel remains the most commonly perceived barrier to access to the courts. Other problems, including lack of child care, travel distance, and uncertainty about the outcome, also dissuade litigants. New immigrants and non-English speaking individuals are particularly wary and ill-informed about the courts.
Confidence in the courts increased among individuals who believe the processes used are fair, regardless of the outcome. Interestingly, it is attorneys who are more focused on outcome fairness than procedural fairness.
Members of the public generally believe the courts are performing at a high level — but strong concerns were expressed about the influence of politics on court decisions, as well as the difficulty in understanding the proceedings, and a common reluctance and uneasiness about getting involved with the courts at all.
This survey will serve to help guide the Judicial Council and the entire branch as we seek means to increase public knowledge and trust in the courts. It is clear that there is a need for us to survey the public and to report regularly and publicly on the courts — and to determine the most effective ways of communicating. Procedures in family and juvenile courts in particular need to be evaluated to ensure that they not only are fair, but are perceived to be so. The large percentage of family law litigants who lack legal representation present special challenges for a court system traditionally designed for lawyers familiar with court processes and requirements.
Last evening, I participated in the State Bar ceremony recognizing pro bono contributions by lawyers in every form of practice from every corner of the state. This is always an exciting and inspiring occasion, and the work of the individuals who were recognized is remarkable in its scope and effectiveness. So many individuals who otherwise would be without legal assistance gain help in family law matters, in dealing with immigration issues, handling eviction suits, obtaining medical or other social services, and a myriad other problems that otherwise would remain unresolved.
The problem of unrepresented litigants remains acute. As the survey showed, the cost of counsel is a barrier to going to court for far too many Californians. Unassisted self-representation often results in frustration, anger, and distrust of the system.
Each of you can make a difference. By committing to pro bono services, you can make a very concrete difference in the lives of families and individuals. You can use your skills in countless ways possible, and thus be a part of making our justice system stronger. And I can assure you that the rewards that you will personally reap will far outweigh your expenditure of time and effort.
On another front, the Judicial Branch has been evaluating methods of improving public education. The judiciary has initiated a number of educational and outreach efforts, including “Youth” or “Peer Courts.” In 34 of these forums, youth volunteers act as prosecutors, public defenders, and jurors in real cases involving their peers.
Appellate courts have held several public court sessions around the state in settings other than their usual courtrooms. Local educators, attorneys, and judges are brought in as partners to assist in these sessions, along with explanatory materials and a curriculum targeted to the classroom. The Supreme Court’s recent yearly special sessions have been broadcast on the California Channel for the benefit of the general public, as well as live into local high schools. Next month we shall conduct a special session in Redding in Shasta County, which will include an opportunity for local school students to pose questions directly to the seven justices on the bench, concerning the judicial process. Many judges also visit local schools to engage in discussions with students and teachers about the courts.
The court website I mentioned is available in English and Spanish, with selected subjects already on-line in other languages. It has a wide variety of useful information for the public about the courts and different proceedings, and a very helpful segment directed to self-represented litigants.
One exciting new project is a “Courts in Class” website that will team up educators and the courts to teach students about the role of the judicial branch in American Democracy. Using the web should allow easier entry into more schools and other community venues. And of course, children today are accustomed to using the web to gain information about the world. This technology will allow for innovative delivery approaches, and use visuals and layouts identified as effective communication methods for the intended audience. For example, there will be illustrated stories based on actual court cases and mock trial games, followed by questions in an interactive format. These efforts are designed to revitalize civics education and encourage a well-educated public.
As you can see, the Judicial Branch is engaged in improving far more than traditional courtroom activities. We understand that administering justice requires our branch to meet the reasonable needs of the public we serve, and that includes reaching out to encourage greater understanding and trust of our system of justice. Justice is important to everyone — not just the litigants before the bench. If public confidence in our society’s ability to render justice falters, our society is weakened.
This is a time of turmoil and unrest worldwide but then when is that not the case? America has long touted its system of justice and its dedication to freedom. Our obligation is to ensure that the rule of law prevails and that our judicial system remains strong and independent, deserving of public trust and confidence, and always keenly attuned to our place in the balance of powers and the democratic form of government that we are so fortunate to enjoy.
I am confident that together we shall continue to improve the administration of justice for all. I look forward to working with you in the year ahead on some of the many innovative programs now underway — and on creating the next generation of creative solutions to enable the judiciary and the legal profession to better serve the public.
Again, congratulations to all those taking office today, and thanks to those stepping down after their terms of service to the bar and the judicial branch. Thank you for inviting me to speak with you today.
Copyright 2005, Metropolitan News Company