Thursday, July 15, 2010
Chief Justice Says He Will Step Down in January
Baxter, Kennard, Werdegar Disclaim Interest in Post
From Staff and Wire Service Reports
California Chief Justice Ronald M. George said yesterday he will leave office in January after 38 years of judicial service.
George told colleagues on the Supreme Court at the end of their weekly conference in San Francisco that he will not place his name on the November ballot to seek retention for another 12-year term. His last day in office will be Jan. 2.
The decision leaves Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger time to make his most significant judicial appointment before he leaves office the same day.
George’s most notable legal decision is likely the opinion he wrote on behalf of a divided Supreme Court in 2008, holding that California’s ban on same-sex marriage violated the California Constitution, a decision overturned when voters approved Proposition 8 later that year. He has also drawn praise for his administrative accomplishments, including bringing all 58 county court systems under state control, although critics accuse him of having over-centralized decision making.
The chief justice said his 70th birthday this year led him to contemplate retiring from the top post, to which he was appointed by then-Gov. Pete Wilson in 1996. He said that he had largely achieved what he wanted to in the post.
He said he had been contemplating retirement for some time, but had only reached his decision this past weekend after spending time with his family. He will be leaving with his “physical and mental strength” intact, he told the MetNews.
‘No Plans at All’
George has often talked in the past about a desire to spend time writing about something other than law, but said yesterday that “my plan is to have no plans at all.” As chief justice, even his time away from the court has been dominated by work and work-related projects, he noted.
He had considered staying on, he explained, to continue work on solutions to the court funding crisis. But after recent efforts that have resulted in a tentative agreement with the Legislature to restore much of the funding that was to have been cut, he can “go in good conscience,” he said.
Schwarzenegger expressed gratitude to George, commenting in a statement that the jurist “[o]ver the course of his career…has shown tremendous commitment to justice with extraordinary dedication to upholding impartiality under the law.”
Schwarzenegger said his office will immediately begin working to fill the position. Under the California Constitution, the governor has until Sept. 16 to appoint a new chief justice or the selection will be left to the next governor.
Art. VI, Sec. 16 requires judges of the Supreme Court or the Court of Appeal to file a declaration of candidacy within 30 days before Aug. 16 in the last year of their term. If no declaration is filed, the governor has the power to nominate someone by the following Sept. 16.
The candidate must be evaluated by the State Bar’s Commission on Judicial Nominees Evaluation, and the nomination becomes effective when the candidate is confirmed by the Commission on Judicial Appointments, which consists of George, Attorney General Jerry Brown, and Presiding Justice Joan Dempsey Klein of this district’s Court of Appeal, Div. Three.
The candidate will then stand for election Nov. 2, and will serve a 12-year term starting next January if he or she receives a majority vote.
George explained that his role as chairman of the Commission on Judicial Appointments does not preclude his making recommendations as to his successor, but that he will not give such advice unless and until the governor asks for it.
The post, he said, “requires a blend of analytical scholarly and writing skills in terms of the decisional aspects [in addition to ] administrative ability and...some political skills in terms of dealing with the Legislature and governor.” The person, he said, might or might not be a current member of the court, all of whose justices are in their 60s and 70s.
George’s colleagues on the Supreme Court and on lower courts declined to speculate yesterday on who Schwarzenegger will name as a successor. They also expressed surprise at yesterday’s announcement.
Justice Kathryn Mickle Werdegar said she was “deeply sorry” to hear of the retirement, and praised George’s evenhandedness at dealing with colleagues.
“It has been a privilege to serve under a giant in the California judiciary,” she commented. “He’s been a wonderful chief judge at every level.”
She disclaimed interest in the post, as did Justices Joyce L. Kennard and Marvin Baxter. Several members of this district’s Court of Appeal, including Presiding Justices Robert Mallano of Div. One, Arthur Gilbert of Div. Six, and Tricia Bigelow of Div. Eight, also said they would not seek appointment.
Presiding Justice Paul A. Turner of this district’s Div. Five, who has applied for appointment to the high court in the past, said he doubted he would be appointed, both because he does not know the governor well and because he is 62 years of age.
Kennard called George “a superb chief justice and a very hard worker,” adding:
“He loves the law, and he had great diplomatic skills, which is something you need in that position.”
Baxter predicted that George’s administrative reforms, as well as “a number of landmark opinions” would be his colleague’s legacy. He praised George for devoting “his entire professional career to public service,” calling it an accomplishment “few can match.”
Enrolled at Princeton
As a teenager, George planned to become a foreign diplomat with the U.S. State Department, and after graduating in 1957 from Beverly Hills High School—where he met his wife, Barbara, with whom he has three sons—enrolled at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.
However, he told the MetNews in 1996, he became “disillusioned” with his career choice at age 19 after hitchhiking through Africa and meeting American diplomats who seemed to be failing at their mission, so upon graduating, he changed career plans and entered Stanford Law School, where he graduated in 1964.
George was hired directly out of law school by then-Attorney General Stanley Mosk as one of his deputies, and in the next seven years racked up a solid record as a young go-getter with the ability to handle complex cases, including representing the state in 11 cases before the state Supreme Court.
He began his judicial career in 1972 when Gov. Ronald Reagan appointed him to the Los Angeles Municipal Court, and in 1977 then-Gov. Jerry Brown elevated him to the Los Angeles Superior Court as George was organizing a campaign to run for the position the next year.
While there, he presided over the trial of “Hillside Strangler” Angelo Buono Jr. for the murders of 10 women in 1977 and 1978. When then-Los Angeles County District Attorney John Van de Kamp sought to dismiss charges after witness and accomplice Kenneth Bianchi repeatedly changed his story, George denied the request and transferred it to then-Attorney General George Deukmejian.
Buono was convicted of nine murders, and Bianchi eventually pled guilty to seven.
Appellate Court Appointment
In 1987 Deukmejian, who had been elected governor, appointed George to this district’s Court of Appeal, and then-Gov. Pete Wilson appointed him to become an associate supreme court justice in 1991. In 1996, the MetNews awarded George its “Person of the Year Award.”
During George’s tenure on the high court, the judiciary, like all California agencies, has suffered severe cutbacks, especially in the last few years. For the first time, state courts were forced to close their doors one day per month, and George’s support of a costly new computer system and several construction projects were criticized by some judges.
The Alliance of California Judges, a group that has openly challenged centralization of the state’s judiciary, said in a statement:
“The Alliance of California Judges wishes Chief Justice Ronald George all the best in his retirement. The Alliance of California Judges believes it is imperative that the next Chief Justice democratize the Judicial Council. The Alliance will continue to seek transparency and accountability in the expenditure of public funds, to promote the rights of the trials courts, and counsel movement away from an overly centralized bureaucracy. We would also urge the next Chief Justice to insist that keeping our Courts open to the public is the first priority of the Judicial Branch.”
Supreme Court Justice Carlos R. Moreno said in a statement that his colleague had been “a terrific Chief Justice for the State,” adding:
“No one could do a better job at leading and inspiring the judiciary in these times of financial crisis. His work with the legislature and the Governor has been simply extraordinary in this regard. But he has also had a tremendous vision and creativeness in making the courts more accessible to the people at all levels.”
Additional tributes to George were received yesterday, including:
I am honored to have served under the leadership of Chief Justice George. His many achievements for good as our Chief Justice will continue to serve the people of California and the state’s justice system for many decades to come.
Los Angeles Superior Court Presiding Judge Charles “Tim” McCoy
The ambit of the position of Chief Justice expanded exponentially under Ronald George. He traveled to all 58 counties, met with all stakeholders and observed the environments and facilities in which they operate. Then he regularly met with them at least annually to facilitate a dialog regarding priorities and concerns of the judicial branch and reciprocally to hear first hand the concerns of the stakeholders. He increased compensation for appointed appellate counsel and staff in death penalty cases. This distinguishes him from all of his predecessors and establishes both a legacy and a precedent for the future.
Los Angeles County Public Defender Michael Judge
He has been an outstanding leader during a difficult time for the court. He will be sorely missed. It’s a huge loss to the legal community. I have the utmost regard for him.
Second District Court of Appeal Div. Eight Presiding Justice Patricia Bigelow
He has been indefatigable in his pursuit of the primacy of the rule of law and in the efficient and fair administration of justice in California. He has fought the good fight, for which all Californians are in his debt.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu
History will long record the indelible impact Ron George had in the most critical legal issues faced by the State of California and its citizens over the last 40 years. The loss of his leadership and wisdom on our State’s highest court will be felt for years to come. On a personal level, I will always be grateful for the help he’s provided in the planning and development of the new Long Beach Courthouse…plus his help on the renaming of [the courthouse] in honor of Gov. George Deukmejian.
Los Angeles County Supervisor Don Knabe
He has presided over a change in the manner in which the courts are organized under the constitution and done so with consummate integrity. The people of the second appellate district should be justly thankful for [George] and his staff in his constant support of the court and its functions.
Second District Court of Appeal Div. Five Presiding Justice Paul A. Turner
During my time as [then-Gov. Gray Davis’s] judicial appointments secretary, I witnessed his interactions with the Governor and Legislature. I can say without hesitation that there has been no better advocate for the judiciary than Ron George. Through his efforts, our branch and individual judges have reaped enormous benefits.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Burt Pines
Aside from his long career as a jurist, he will probably long be remembered for the numerous concepts he raised and pursued with respect to the judicial branch of our state government—the funding of the courts, the construction of courthouses, and the management of the courts—throughout the state.
Former Los Angeles County Counsel Lloyd W. Pellman
What a wonderful ride he has given us. He is the best of the best!
Former Los Angeles County Bar Association President Patricia Phillips.
I wish him the best. He’s been an outstanding chief justice.
Second District Court of Appeal Div. One Presiding Justice Robert M. Mallano.
Copyright 2010, Metropolitan News Company