Tuesday, October 15, 2002
George Reaffirms Policy on Assignments of Retired Judges, but Says Exceptions Will Be Considered
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer/Appellate Courts
Chief Justice Ronald M. George reaffirmed his new policy of denying court assignments to retired judges who engage in private dispute resolution for pay Sunday, but promised to consider exceptions on a case-by-case basis.
“But we will not have exceptions that swallow the rule,” George told the final session of this year’s California Judges Association annual meeting in Newport Beach.
George made his comment as part of his annual “Conversation With the Chief Justice,” in which he responds to questions from designated CJA members. This year’s questioners were Third District Court of Appeal Justice Fred K. Morrison and Lassen Superior Court Judge Stephen Bradbury, whose successor as president of the association, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Gregory O’Brien, was sworn in by George moments earlier.
The chief justice also administered the oath to the other officers and board members, including Los Angeles Superior Court Judges Emilie Elias, Abraham Khan, and Michelle Rosenblatt and Justice Paul Coffee of this district’s Court of Appeal, Div. Six.
Also serving on the board, but not present Sunday morning, were Los Angeles Superior Court Judges Teresa Sanchez-Gordon and Eric Taylor.
Commenting on the private-judging policy, George said he had received “numerous complaints” about retired judges serving as both private and public jurists. Under the new process, announced in July and effective Jan. 1, applicants for the Assigned Judges Program must agree to refrain from paid ADR during the calendar year in which they will be sitting on assignment.
The purpose of the restriction is to avoid not only potential conflicts of interest, but the appearance of impropriety, George reiterated. The chief justice cited claims that assigned judges were soliciting business in the courthouse, as well as an instance in which out-of-town counsel were forced to put their Los Angeles Superior Court case on hold and pay for hotel accommodations while the assigned retired judge took a two-day recess to attend to private business.
George, who under the state Constitution has sole discretion when it comes to assigning retired judges, said an exception might be made if, for example, a private judge now wishes to sit on assignment but needs to complete a lengthy matter after the beginning of the year. The chief justice also said he would permit a private judge who sits for a few hours each week as a juvenile court bench officer to continue doing so.
“We’ll lose some good people” as a result of the new rule, he acknowledged. But he said he was pleased that several retired judges had offered to give up private judging in favor of year-round court assignments.
The chief justice also discussed the Judicial Council’s plan to propose an amended version of the judiciary article of the state Constitution.
One change that merits consideration, George said, was an expansion in the types of discipline that the Commission on Judicial Performance may impose. For example, the commission—which is currently limited to admonishing, censuring, or removing an offending judge—could be authorized to impose an unpaid period of suspension, a change long proposed by attorneys who represent judges in disciplinary proceedings.
Also up for consideration, the chief justice said, was a change in the composition of the council. In response to a question from Morrison, he said he would support having court administrators—who currently serve in an advisory capacity—as voting members of the council.
This would “enrich” the council, rather than “dilute” the votes of the judicial members, George insisted.
One change that he will not support, he declared, was the election of judicial members, an approach favored by many, if not most, CJA members. George, who chairs the council and appoints all 15 of the other judicial members under the current system, said that CJA, not the council, should represent the judges.
The council, he told the members, should remain “an independent body that is not a representative body.” Centralizing the appointments authority, he said, assures that the membership is diverse in terms of race, gender, geography, and philosophy.
George got a more favorable response when promised to “aggressively” support the 8.5 percent pay raise proposal that was shelved when the state’s economy turned sour last year. Experts, he told the judges, now believe that conditions will improve in the coming year, and that after the usual lag period, additional revenues will be available in the 2004-2005 fiscal year.
“I think the prospect [for the raise] ultimately is good,” he said, adding that the courts are at “the high point of our relationship” with the other branches of state government. The judges, he added, “would have looked rather piggish” if they had pushed forward with a pay raise proposal while the governor and Legislature were under pressure to hold the line on other expenditures.
The chief justice also responded briefly to judges’ concerns about the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision in Republican Party of Minnesota v. White, striking down restrictions on judicial candidates’ discussions of political issues. He noted that the provision which the court found unconstitutional does not have a California counterpart, and that the high court declined to rule on another provision of Minnesota’s rule that is similar to this state’s.
He has, he said, asked the ethics advisory committee chaired by Charles Vogel, presiding justice of Div. Four of this district’s Court of Appeal, to look at the issues.
Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company