Tuesday, Dec. 31, 1996
Runner Brings Verve to Role as Head of State Court System
DAVID KLINE, Staff Writer
Chief Justice Ronald Marc George is not considered an activist
judge, but he certainly is among the most active.
being elevated to chief justice on May 1, the 56-year-old
jurist has visited 20 counties to communicate with court administrators,
has vigorously lobbied state lawmakers and the governor for
more court funding, and has granted more media interview requests
than Johnnie Cochran.
is in addition to the usual administrative duties, including
chairing the Judicial Council and the Commission on Judicial
same time, as the high court's engineer, George has kept the
trains running on schedule by putting in long hours hearing
oral arguments and writing opinions.
still finds time to maintain a grueling workout schedule that
includes running four miles through the streets of San Francisco
on weekdays, and more than 20 miles a day on weekends. On
Jan. 10, he will squeeze yet another event into his packed
schedule. That day, he will attend a banquet at the Biltmore
Hotel to receive the Metropolitan News-Enterprise "Person
of the Year" award for 1996.
work is a principal characteristic of George, a man who once
presided over the high-profile Hillside Strangler case at
the same time he was serving as president of the California
Judges Association and supervising judge of the Los Angeles
Superior Court's criminal division.
real challenge is not having enough hours in the day,"
in a high-backed leather chair in his San Francisco office,
the chief justice comments:
have to fight for enough time in my schedule to do what I
like most about the job, and that is working on my opinions
.I find that to have a quality block of time uninterrupted,
without any distractions, that often the opinions get worked
on at the dining room table between 9 p.m. and 2 a.m."
he appears refreshed, without bags under his eyes—a testament
to his ability to get by with just a few hours of sleep per
and colleagues marvel at his ability to squeeze so much into
may be people who work as hard as he does, but I can't imagine
anybody working harder," Los Angeles Superior Court Judge
Michael Nash comments.
Justice Marvin Baxter agrees, but cautions that George should
not be referred to as a "workaholic."
term 'workaholic,' I think, leaves the impression that other
important parts of one's life are not being attended to, and
that's certainly not true with him," Baxter comments.
"I think he really attacks other things with equal dedication—for
instance, his workout program and his relationship with his
and his wife, Barbara, have three sons, Eric, Andrew and Christopher,
all in their 20s.
says running helps him juggle his many tasks and keep work
from encroaching on his family life.
think it's very helpful in terms of keeping up one's physical
and mental stamina, and it's also good in terms of coping
with the stress of a heavy workload," he says.
George took up running while trying the Hillside Strangler
case—one of the longest criminal trials in U.S. history, at
two years and two days—to relieve stress. He has run in the
New York, Boston and San Francisco marathons.
enjoys hiking, an activity that frequently draws him to the
Sierras and also has taken him to the Himalayas and the Swiss
he was a teenager, George planned to put his considerable
energy into a career as a foreign diplomat with the U.S. State
graduating in 1957 from Beverly Hills High School—where he
met his wife—George enrolled at Princeton University's Woodrow
Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.
says 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.
of them seemed to just be congregating amongst themselves
and having very little contact with the local populace,"
he explains, "and not having much, if any, of an impact
on the problems of the area."
he adds, "There were a lot of people in these outposts
who sort of wished they were home, and were making it very
clear that that was their wish."
graduating from Princeton, George changed plans and entered
Stanford Law School, where he was to graduate in 1964.
ended up going to law school perhaps not out of the loftiest
motives, but rather as a way of keeping my options open,"
he confesses, "and feeling that it would also postpone
the decision of what I would do."
hired directly out of law school by then-Attorney General
Stanley Mosk, now an associate justice of his court, as one
of his deputies, and immediately took to his new job.
motivation and interest in the law may have been at some points
marginal at an earlier time, [but] I became totally enthusiastic
about what I was able to do in the Attorney General's Office,"
he was able to do from 1965 to 1972 was rack up a solid record
as a young go-getter with the ability to handle complex cases.
He represented the state in 11 cases before the state Supreme
of the better known, 1972's People v. Anderson, 6 Cal.3d
628, George was unsuccessful in defending the then-existing
death penalty statute from an attack under the state Constitution's
"cruel or unusual punishment" clause.
prevailed later that year in People v. Sirhan, 7 Cal.3d
710, in which the court upheld the conviction of the man who
murdered Sen. Robert Kennedy.
presented oral arguments and briefs to the U.S. Supreme Court
in six cases, two of which dealt with the state's ability
to sentence convicted murderers to death.
Deukmejian was a state senator at the time, and recalls that
the young prosecutor "was a very valuable source of information
and assistance when we were fighting to maintain the death
governor—who elevated George from the Los Angeles Superior
Court to the Court of Appeal—adds:
understands complex issues quickly, and he's got outstanding
written and oral skills."
Justice Mildred Lillie of Div. Seven of this district's Court
of Appeal remembers George as being "very meticulous
and very level-headed," and having "great research
on the Sirhan Sirhan case and the complexity of the legal
issues involved, George says:
was interesting to see, in effect, the confluence of my legal
training on the technicalities of the law merge with something
of great political and social significance."
credits his "good fortune in having handled cases like
exposure "that probably enhanced my chances for appointment
to the bench."
at the young age of 32, he was appointed by then-Gov. Ronald
Reagan to a seat on the Los Angeles Municipal Court. Four
years later, he was elected, without opposition, to a six-year
sort of felt and looked like the boy judge," he recalls
with a chuckle.
Municipal Court, he was in charge of the West Los Angeles
Branch from 1974 to 1975, where he reorganized and reformed
branch court operations.
included establishing a master court operation, informal traffic
ticket trial procedure, translation of court forms into Spanish
and a judge pro tem program to handle small-claims cases.
George later headed the court's Criminal Division.
the way, he became known as one of the "young Turks"
who was willing to challenge the seniority system on his way
up the judicial ladder.
two days before Christmas, then-Gov. Jerry Brown elevated
George to the Los Angeles Superior Court. The appointment
came as the jurist was organizing a campaign to run for the
Superior Court the following year. He was elected without
opposition in 1978 and 1984.
on the Superior Court that George was to preside over what
remains his best-known case, the trial of "Hillside Strangler"
Angelo Buono Jr. for the murders of 10 women in 1977 and 1978.
was notable not only because of its grisly subject matter
and its seemingly interminable length, but also because of
an unconventional ruling by George.
Van de Kamp, then the Los Angeles district attorney, moved
to dismiss charges against Buono, largely because witness
and accomplice Kenneth Bianchi was proving difficult. Bianchi,
who eventually pled guilty to seven murders, claimed to have
multiple personalities and repeatedly changed his story.
reading thousands of pages of preliminary hearing transcripts,
George denied Van de Kamp's request and ordered the prosecution
to proceed. In addition, he took Van de Kamp off the case
and transferred it to Deukmejian, who by then had been elected
as I was reluctant, out of general philosophy, to second-guess
the prosecutor," George says, " I had a sense of
what evidence was in the record, and I felt that it was an
abuse of discretion not to pursue the case in light of that."
another way, it would not be in the interest of justice for
the case not to go to the jury and then let the chips fall
where they may."
who was a prosecutor in the case following its reassignment,
praises George's handling of the trial.
was a judge who was in total control of the courtroom,"
Nash says. "The jury thought the world of him, the lawyers
knew he was always paying attention and knew the law better
than any of us—he's the standard we all shoot for."
Nash adds, "He's nice, to boot."
is not alone in his assessment of the chief justice's abilities.
named George the "Trial Judge of the Year" in 1983,
while he also has been named "Appellate Justice of the
Year" by the Los Angeles Trial Lawyers Association and
was lauded by the California Judges Association as the judge
who did the most for the California judiciary in 1981.
George nor Van de Kamp is eager to discuss the Hillside Strangler
case, other than as to the legal points, and both men say
they have maintained a cordial relationship despite the negative
publicity Van de Kamp suffered after George's ruling.
painful as it was, frankly, for me, because it was used against
me in campaigns later on, his judgment was vindicated,"
Van de Kamp says, referring to Buono's conviction on nine
of the 10 murder counts.
1990 race for governor, then-San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein
came from behind to beat Van de Kamp in the Democratic primary
based largely on a last-minute media assault that used body
bags and other visual images to paint Van de Kamp as soft
on crime because of his attempt to drop charges against Buono.
Kamp is quick to point out that as a former member of the
Commission on Judicial Appointments, he twice has voted to
confirm George's appointments to higher courts.
Deukmejian became governor, it was not surprising that George
was elevated to the Court of Appeal. He took his oath in 1987,
and was confirmed by the voters in 1990.
the retirement of Justice Allen Broussard gave newly elected
Gov. Pete Wilson his first chance to make a Supreme Court
appointment. George, who had been on Deukmejian's short list
for a spot on the high court, was a natural pick for Wilson.
The pro-death-penalty governor said as he announced his selection:
the risk of being immodest, I don't see how I could have done
Bar's Judicial Nominees Evaluation Commission agreed, giving
George its highest rating of "exceptionally well qualified"
after an exhaustive study of his background.
was not shared by everyone, however, as some liberal activists
grumbled about George's history of supporting the death penalty
and handing down tough sentences, and several minority-rights
groups complained that it was not proper for the governor
to appoint a white male to replace the high court's only minority
the critics, Santa Clara University Law School Dean Gerald
Uelman, called the appointment a "tragic step backwards"
and complained about Wilson's decision to "revert to
an all-white court for the first time in 14 years."
who has since appointed two women—one of them black—and a
son of Chinese immigrants to the high court, responded to
the criticism with a statement that foreshadowed his support
of this year's Proposition 209:
me, it is insulting to suggest that somewhere there needs
to be an affirmative action program for minority lawyers to
become minority judges."
associate justice, George wrote the majority opinion in 1995's
Warfield v. Peninsula Golf & Country Club, 10 Cal.4th
594, in which the court held that under the Unruh Civil Rights
Act, private country clubs that engage in business transactions
with non-members may not legally exclude women.
also wrote for the majority in In re Marriage of Simpson,
4 Cal.4th 225, where the high tribunal ruled that a court
may assess spousal and child support based on a person's earning
capacity, rather than merely upon his actual earnings at the
time of trial.
majority opinions by George came in a case that precluded
the Legislature from amending the insurance initiative Proposition
103 without voter approval, and another which upheld the constitutionality
of the provisions for open hearings before the Commission
on Judicial Performance.
of opinions and debating of ideas can pit justice against
justice, but George, according to colleagues, always maintains
an even temperament.
never any acrimony when he expresses a contrary view,"
concurs, and adds with a laugh, "He doesn't fly off the
handle, and he obviously has many opportunities to."
in conversation George is mild-mannered, and tends to avoid
extended discussions of contentious issues. He clearly prefers
to make his points in writing, and once he has done so—as
he did this year in a letter to Los Angeles Superior Court
Presiding Judge Gary Klausner indicating his displeasure with
Klausner's opposition to a trial-court funding plan—he would
rather not revisit an issue.
Chief Justice Malcolm Lucas announced his retirement in late
1995, it was almost a foregone conclusion that George, who
on several occasions had served as acting chief justice by
Lucas' designation, would be tapped as the next leader of
the judicial branch.
the governor's appointments secretary indicated that "a
few" people were under consideration for the post, there
were no palpable signs that anyone other than George was actually
in the running.
again, George earned the JNE Commission's highest rating of
"exceptionally well qualified" and faced only token
opposition at his confirmation hearing before the Commission
on Judicial Appointments.
hearing, anti-abortion activists criticized a dissenting opinion
in which he maintained that a minor need not receive parental
consent before having a abortion. (The court voted 4-3 to
uphold the 1989 law that requires parental consent, but has
since voted, after the replacement of two justices who retired,
activist also criticized George based solely on his race.
The activist admitted that he was unfamiliar with George or
General Dan Lungren, who is staunchly opposed to abortion,
asked George several questions about the parental-consent
case and then voted with the other two commission members
to confirm George to the $137,463-per-year post.
immediately set the goal of visiting courts in all 58 counties—he's
up to 20 now—starting with his alma mater, the Los Angeles
have what's probably the largest judiciary, at least in the
Western world, of almost 1,600 judges, which is approximately
double the size of the federal system," he says. "I
felt that if I was going to perform my function as chief justice,
that I should establish lines of communication and visit the
various courts around the state and be able to assist the
local courts in solving their own problems."
the ongoing tour thus far has been successful, and has helped
him understand the problems faced by local courts while at
the same time reassuring the courts that they are not alone.
are many aspects of my duties that this will help me out on,
and it's very good in terms of morale and establishing lines
of communication," he explains. "I've been told
repeatedly during these visits, 'This is the first time that
the chief justice has ever, in the history of the county,
believes the visits, coupled with George's conspicuous efforts
to increase communication with bar groups and the press, will
"enhance the prestige of the court."
Bar President Thomas Stolpman welcomes the chief justice's
appears to want to open up the process more than Chief Justice
Lucas, who tended to see things through the eyes of a judge,"
Stolpman says. "Ron George wants to be more of a consensus-builder."
at a recent State Bar Board of Governors meeting, frequent
mention was made of George's willingness to work hand-in-hand
with the lawyers' association to help increase pro bono work
and tackle problems facing the legal community.
adds that those whom George has appointed to various posts
within the judiciary are "more open to innovation and
Bar president admits, however, that as an attorney who represents
injury victims, he fears that the George court may "erode
victims' rights to benefit what are perceived as business
assuming the post of chief justice, George has spent a good
deal of time lobbying the governor and Legislature for more
court funds, and a reorganization of the trial courts that
would shift fiscal and managerial responsibility from the
counties to the state.
that because many counties are strapped for cash, the effectiveness
and independence of the judiciary will be increasingly jeopardized
unless a more stable source of money is found.
was nice in the old days. The presiding judge could walk across
the county mall, ask for a certain amount from the board of
supervisors, be told, 'Sorry, you're only getting 99 percent
of what you asked for,' go back and that was that. But we're
in a different era now."
no doubt, in my view, that obtaining a stable and permanent
source of trial court funding is the most important challenge
meeting the judiciary as it enters the next century and, literally,
the next millennium. That is my first priority."