Wednesday, December 12, 2001
George Says Economy Bars Push for Judicial Pay Hike
By DAVID KLINE
SAN FRANCISCO (Capitol)—Because of an economic downturn that threatens to leave the state government billions of dollars in the hole, the judicial branch is deferring its plan to lobby for judicial pay raises and the creation of new judgeships, Chief Justice Ronald George said yesterday.
George and the Judicial Council, the policy-making body for the courts, previously had asked the governor and Legislature to approve an 8.5 percent raise for judges and as many as 50 new judgeships.
“It’s deferred, not cancelled,” George said of the plan during his annual holiday reception for newspaper reporters and editors who cover the courts. “We recognized it would not be appropriate to pursue that at this time.”
Eventually, a pay raise will be needed to help the state attract and retain quality judges, especially if the salaries of lawyers and private judges continue to climb, he said. The new judges are needed to keep the courts operating efficiently enough to guarantee justice for Californians, he said. The Judicial Council estimates that the state needs 150 new judges to keep up with an increasing caseload.
The chief justice also announced that while the judicial branch is not obligated to follow the governor’s directive for state agencies to reduce their budgets, the courts have cut $30 million to $40 million from discretionary spending budgets—a decrease of approximately 4.5 percent.
He said additional actions—leaving job vacancies unfilled and deferring maintenance on court property, primarily—could save up to $60 million,.
“It’s appropriate ... to do our part [by] looking for ways we can cut our one-time expenditures,” he said.
He also said the courts will look for a bond measure, rather than an appropriation from the Legislature and governor, to pay for courthouse maintenance and repair.
“Some [courthouses] are really in danger of falling down,” George said.
George said the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and subsequent tightening of security are not expected to have a major impact on the judicial branch’s budget.
George also said he would like to increase the options available for disciplining judges who violate the profession’s code of ethics.
Currently, the Commission on Judicial Performance, which investigates charges of wrongdoing by judges, has the option of removing a judge from the bench or issuing public censure, public reproval or private admonishment.
That, George said, amounts to a choice between “nuclear wa removal from the bench—and a slap on the wrist.” He said the watchdog commission’s authority should be extended to allow it to suspend judges without pay and to order counseling or drug rehabilitation for judges who need it.
In other areas, the chief justice:
•Praised the high court’s newest member, Justice Carlos Moreno, as being “very quick to grasp the process” and as “the ultimate in collegiality and consensus-building.”
•Announced the formation of a five-lawyer team within the Supreme Court’s staff to expedite procedural matters in capital cases.
•Said that following recent media complaints, justices have increased scrutiny over themselves to make sure they recuse themselves to avoid conflicts of interest.
•Declined comment on the possible use of military tribunals to try war criminals.
•Reported that the final steps of unifying the trial courts went smoothly.
•Indicated the court will televise oral arguments more frequently than it has in the past.
The informal holiday gathering was held in George’s chambers, with 21 journalists seated around the Supreme Court’s conference table and on nearby chairs and sofas.
The chief justice said the media provides a “vital service” by translating the courts’ “rather arcane” language and actions into stories that help the general public understand how the judicial system works.
As in years past, George also questioned reporters on ways to improve the courts’ communications with the press, and announced changes intended to improve media access to on-line information about cases.
Copyright 2001, Metropolitan News Company