Monday, September 27, 2010
Reforms Have Strengthened Judicial Independence, George Says in Farewell
By a MetNews Staff Writer
Changes in the way courts are funded and structured have made courts more independent and improved the quality of justice in the state, Chief Justice Ronald M. George said in remarks prepared for delivery to the State Bar on Saturday.
“These historic reforms—trial court funding, court unification, and the transfer of court facilities – have strengthened the independence of the judiciary as a branch of government,” George declared. “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.”
George reflected on his legal career and the evolution of the judiciary in his comments, which were to be delivered at the State Bar’s annual meeting in Monterey. An advance text was released Friday by the Administrative Office of the Courts.
The chief justice did not file for retention and is due to leave office when his term ends in January.
George said he “could not in good conscience” step down from his post if the judiciary “remained enmeshed in a severe budget crisis.”
He opined that “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.”
George recalled the dire state of the judiciary’s finances when he first took office in 1996, when “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.”
After visiting courts statewide, the chief justice said he was convinced “a lack of consistent and adequate funding made the administration of justice a day-to-day challenge, and inhibited effective planning for the future.”
He described how he twice went to the Legislature seeking emergency bailout funding and worked to secure passage of the Trial Court Funding Act in 1998.
George said he learned the measure had been enacted shortly before he delivered his 1997 State of the Judiciary Address to the State Bar, and “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.”
The next major court reform, he said, came in 1998 when voters approved court unification. While opponents warned that the measure would make the relationship between courts and the public more remote, the measure was passed by about a two-thirds majority of state voters.
Critics accused the chief justice and his allies of strong-arming holdout courts, like the Los Angeles and Kern superior courts, into bending to their will. But George was hardly apologetic.
“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,” he said, adding:
“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, George said, came in 2002 with the Trial Court Facilities Act, followed by a $5 billion revenue bond measure in 2008 that provided funding for more than 40 courthouse construction projects and created thousands of jobs.
The act transferred responsibility—and in many instances ownership—of California’s 532 court facilities from the counties to the state, under judicial branch management.
George warned that challenges remain, however, saying the system needs more judges, particularly in areas of rapid growth, as well as better retirement benefits for judges and more services for the public.
“Justice is not simply a luxury to be adequately funded only in prosperous years,” he said. “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.”
George praised Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s appointment of Justice Tanti Cantil-Sakauye as his successor. The Third District Court of Appeal jurist will take office Jan. 2 if approved by voters in November.
“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,” he said. “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.”
The chief justice thanked many whom he said had contributed to the success of the judiciary during his 14-year tenure, including Schwarzenegger and ex-governors Pete Wilson and Gray Davis, the Legislature, state court executives Bill Vickrey and Ron Overholt, the various presidents and Board of Governors members of the State Bar, and the employees of the judicial branch.
George quoted former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell:
“Equal justice under law is not merely a caption on the facade of the Supreme Court building. 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.”
“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.”
Copyright 2010, Metropolitan News Company