1996 "Person of the Year"

Chief Justice of California

Metropolitan News-Enterprise
Tuesday, Dec. 31, 1996


Marathon Runner Brings Verve to Role as Head of State Court System

By DAVID KLINE, Staff Writer

California Chief Justice Ronald Marc George is not considered an activist judge, but he certainly is among the most active. 

Since 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.

This is in addition to the usual administrative duties, including chairing the Judicial Council and the Commission on Judicial Appointments.

At the 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.

And he 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.

Principal Characteristic

Hard 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.

"The real challenge is not having enough hours in the day," George says.

Sitting in a high-backed leather chair in his San Francisco office, the chief justice comments:

"I 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."

Still, he appears refreshed, without bags under his eyes—a testament to his ability to get by with just a few hours of sleep per night.

Friends and colleagues marvel at his ability to squeeze so much into each day.

"There 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.

Associate Justice Marvin Baxter agrees, but cautions that George should not be referred to as a "workaholic."

"The 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 family."

George and his wife, Barbara, have three sons, Eric, Andrew and Christopher, all in their 20s.

George says running helps him juggle his many tasks and keep work from encroaching on his family life.

"I 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.

In fact, 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.

He also enjoys hiking, an activity that frequently draws him to the Sierras and also has taken him to the Himalayas and the Swiss Alps.

When he was a teenager, George planned to put his considerable energy into a career as a foreign diplomat with the U.S. State Department.

After 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.

But he 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.

"Most 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."

In fact, 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."

Stanford Law School

So upon graduating from Princeton, George changed plans and entered Stanford Law School, where he was to graduate in 1964.

"I 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."

He was 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.

"My 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," George says.

What 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 Court.

In one 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.

But he 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.

He also 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.

'Information and Assistance'

George 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 penalty."

The former governor—who elevated George from the Los Angeles Superior Court to the Court of Appeal—adds:

"He understands complex issues quickly, and he's got outstanding written and oral skills."

Presiding 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 skills."

Reflecting on the Sirhan Sirhan case and the complexity of the legal issues involved, George says:

"It 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."

George credits his "good fortune in having handled cases like that" with

providing exposure "that probably enhanced my chances for appointment to the bench."

Reagan Appointment

In 1972, 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 term.

"I sort of felt and looked like the boy judge," he recalls with a chuckle.

At the Municipal Court, he was in charge of the West Los Angeles Branch from 1974 to 1975, where he reorganized and reformed branch court operations.

The changes 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.

Along 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.

In 1977, 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.

It was 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.

The trial was notable not only because of its grisly subject matter and its seemingly interminable length, but also because of an unconventional ruling by George.

John 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.

Prosecution Transferred

But after 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 attorney general.

"Much 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."

He adds:

"Put 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."

Nash, who was a prosecutor in the case following its reassignment, praises George's handling of the trial.

"Here 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."

And, Nash adds, "He's nice, to boot."

Nash is not alone in his assessment of the chief justice's abilities.

Receives Plaudits

The MetNews 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.

Neither 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.

"As 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.

In the 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.

Van de 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.

After 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.

Wilson Appointment

In 1991, 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:

"At the risk of being immodest, I don't see how I could have done better."

The State Bar's Judicial Nominees Evaluation Commission agreed, giving George its highest rating of "exceptionally well qualified" after an exhaustive study of his background.

The opinion 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 member.

One of 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."

Wilson, 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:

"To me, it is insulting to suggest that somewhere there needs to be an affirmative action program for minority lawyers to become minority judges."

As an 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.

George 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

Other 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.

The drafting of opinions and debating of ideas can pit justice against justice, but George, according to colleagues, always maintains an even temperament.

"There's never any acrimony when he expresses a contrary view," Mosk says.

Baxter concurs, and adds with a laugh, "He doesn't fly off the handle, and he obviously has many opportunities to."

Indeed, 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.

When 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.

 While 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.

Once 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.

At the 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, to reconsider.)

A Hispanic activist also criticized George based solely on his race. The activist admitted that he was unfamiliar with George or his record.

Lungren Questions

Attorney 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.

George 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 County courts.

"We 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."

He says 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.

"There 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, visited.'"

Mosk 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."

State Bar President Thomas Stolpman welcomes the chief justice's outreach effort.

"He 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."

Indeed, 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.

Stolpman adds that those whom George has appointed to various posts within the judiciary are "more open to innovation and new ideas."

The State 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 interests."

Lobbying for Funds

Since 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.

He says 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.

He comments:

"It 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."

He adds:

"There's 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."

Copyright Metropolitan News Company, 1996-2001

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