Chief Justice Speech - March 25, 2003

Delivered by Chief Justice Ronald M. George
To a Joint Session of the California Legislature
March 25, 2003
Sacramento, California

Good afternoon. I would like to thank Senate President Pro Tem John Burton and Speaker of the Assembly Herb Wesson for their invitation to speak to you today. Here with me, in addition to my colleagues from the California Supreme Court, are other representatives of the judicial branch, including members of the Judicial Council; chairs of several of the council's advisory committees; James Herman, President of the State Bar, and members of the bar staff and the Bench Bar Coalition; and Bill Vickrey, our very able Administrative Director of the Courts, and several key members of his excellent staff from the Administrative Office of the Courts.

This is a critical period in our nation's history. Perhaps as never before, the international crisis has focused attention on our ability to preserve our freedoms. As our troops are engaged in battle, all of us—including the courts—must ensure that the principles in whose name the men and women in our military are risking their lives remain strong and vibrant. At the same time, the economic crisis facing our state and the rest of our nation challenges us to make certain that our judicial system remains able to perform its crucial role in protecting and preserving those freedoms.

The first time I had the opportunity to address a joint session of the Legislature on the state of the judiciary was in May 1996, two weeks after becoming Chief Justice of California. In the less than seven years since then, with the help and support of the Legislature and two governors, the judicial branch has undergone an unprecedented transformation.

No longer a loose confederation of 220 local trial courts with different rules and policies, primarily reliant on county funding and subject to the vagaries of local fiscal health and relationships, the judicial branch is now able to serve the public in a more accountable, effective, efficient, and accessible manner than ever before. A stronger, more focused statewide system is now able to assist 58 local jurisdictions—one in each county—in providing equal and effective access to justice for individuals in every part of California.

The Judicial Council of California, which I chair as Chief Justice, comprises judges, lawyers, and two legislative representatives (your appointees are Senator Martha Escutia and Assembly Member Ellen Corbett) and is charged by the California Constitution with setting policy for the statewide administration of justice. The Administrative Office of the Courts is its invaluable staff arm.

Three major reforms have been the key to our transformation to a more cohesive and accountable branch of government, and we are indebted to you and to the executive branch for giving us the tools to make these necessary changes. Seven years ago, it became clear that dramatic action was needed, and all three branches of government have risen to the challenge.

In my first year as Chief Justice, during which I visited the courts in each of California's counties, I twice was forced to ask the Legislature for emergency funding to tide over several individual courts facing imminent closure or the collapse of fundamental services. In 1997 the Legislature enacted a measure shifting the major responsibility for funding the trial courts from the counties to the state, ending a dysfunctional and unstable system of funding that left the trial courts unable to meet the needs of the public.

In 1998 the Legislature placed on the ballot a constitutional amendment, overwhelmingly approved by the voters, that enabled the trial courts to take the next step—unification of the superior and municipal courts into a single level of trial court. In less than three years, based upon a county-by-county vote of the judges, the trial courts throughout California merged into a single court in each county.

The third and final piece of this monumental structural reform became a reality last fall when you passed, and Governor Davis signed into law, the Trial Court Facilities Act of 2002, which started the process of shifting the ownership and management responsibility for California's 451 courthouse facilities from the counties to the state. On behalf of the judicial branch, I want to thank you and the Governor for this vote of confidence in our ability to manage all aspects of the administration of justice in our state.

The change in courthouse ownership is to begin in 2004 and continue for the next several years. This enactment is a key component in enabling the judicial branch to most efficiently manage its resources in administering justice for the people of our state. Senator Escutia is the author of this legislation as well as of this year's Senate Bill 655, which is intended to authorize the issuance of bonds necessary to complete the transition to state ownership and provide needed courthouse improvements in every county.

The judicial branch has taken seriously its stewardship of the resources you have allocated to us. Starting with the budget process in 2001, as California's economic situation became more uncertain, we withdrew $213 million from our budget request at an early stage.

As the budget crisis deepened during the current fiscal year, we initiated measures to cut expenditures, while attempting to minimize the effect on the services that the courts provide to the public. But already some of the progress that we have made in expanding access to the courts is beginning to be adversely affected, and future cuts threaten to undo major benefits that have been provided to the public.

Access to justice is being jeopardized and diminished in ways that directly affect individuals who need and deserve court services-especially in the areas of civil and family law. First, let me describe some of the wide array of programs that we have been able to institute during the past few years to assist litigants-particularly unrepresented litigants who otherwise would be unable to vindicate their legal rights—and to increase the public's understanding of the court system.

The Equal Access Fund, which was created in 1999, annually provides $10 million in state funding for legal services. Every year, 90 percent of these funds has been distributed to more than 100 California nonprofit legal services projects engaged in offering free assistance to indigent litigants such as battered spouses, families seeking benefits for disabled children, and elderly victims of fraud. The remaining 10 percent of the fund has been directed to court-based services for unrepresented litigants, developed in partnership with legal aid services. Reductions in this fund will lead to reductions in these essential services.

The savings generated from trial court unification and state funding have resulted in unprecedented experimentation by local courts in programs designed to assist the public. Last month, the annual California Judicial Administration Conference was held, bringing together presiding judges, court executives, and other court leaders to learn about methods of improving court administration—and to inform each other and the Judicial Council about local needs and projects so as to enable us to make better-informed decisions for the state as a whole. The conference also served to develop strategies for achieving further efficiencies and cost savings in our court system during this time of economic crisis.

One of the highlights of this conference is the presentation of awards to courts that have developed innovative and effective programs during the past year. A few examples of these award-winning programs will give you some idea of the breadth of innovation now under way in the judicial branch.

In Nevada County, the court created a public law center to assist self-represented individuals navigate through court procedures in areas including adoption, conservatorship, unlawful detainer, and civil harassment. In Yolo County, the superior court joined with the local probation department to create a specialized juvenile violence court. Fifteen juveniles with a history of violence are selected for each session. Their school attendance and behavior are monitored daily, and they are subject to random drug testing and searches for gang-related paraphernalia. They attend anger control classes and peer meetings led by a facilitator, and participate in field trips to the California Youth Authority Diversion/Reality Check Program and to San Quentin's Squires program for youth at risk. Each month they appear in court, where their specially assigned probation officer reports on their progress.

In San Diego, more than 1,900 students have attended a collaborative educational program developed by a judge and a local schoolteacher. Students participate in court visits and a mock trial and learn about the legal system, the courts, and the administration of justice.

Similarly, the California Supreme Court, which traditionally conducts oral argument sessions in San Francisco, Sacramento, and Los Angeles, has engaged in outreach by holding special sessions in other venues around the state. Last October we met in Fresno and arranged to have oral arguments in three particularly interesting cases telecast live to more than 200 high schools up and down the Central Valley. Students were provided with written materials relating to the cases and to the California court system, and local judges and lawyers served as mentors to guide the ensuing discussion in the classrooms. The court session began with 10 students in the courtroom addressing questions about the judicial process to the justices on the bench.

Several of our Courts of Appeal also have ventured out from their usual courtrooms and collaborated with local communities to create in-depth, interactive educational programs. Expanding the walls of the courtroom electronically has provided our young people with an invaluable learning experience.

That same week in Fresno, I was pleased to help dedicate the state's first Spanish language self-help center for self-represented litigants.

We have adopted other systemwide innovations that have improved access to justice, such as the one-day-or-one-trial mode of jury service, which has now been implemented statewide and has proved very popular with the public-and with me, when I reported for jury duty three months ago in Los Angeles. We similarly are making advances in improving the use of technology, adopting uniform rules, and, in consultation with the local courts, exploring how to coordinate administrative services across the state—all as a way to conserve and better allocate resources.

The challenge we share with you is not to squander the advances already made by all three branches of government in promoting the courts' ability to meet the public's needs. Courts rely on the trust and confidence of those they serve in order to function effectively—and we risk undermining the public's faith in our justice system if we cannot provide the services that make our system truly accessible to all. We continue to take measures to enhance public confidence in ways that do not increase the costs to the system, such as my recent adoption of a policy requiring retired judges interested in serving as assigned judges in our courts to abstain from serving as private judges during any year in which they seek assignments.

But in those programs reliant on sufficient court resources, we already are seeing an erosion in some services due to cuts that have been imposed to date. This is not a matter of inconvenience to the courts; it is a matter of depriving individuals of the meaningful access to justice they desperately need.

For example, the closure of Family Law Information Centers, which already has begun in some areas, poses significant risks for victims of violence. A Fresno County woman, the victim of repeated beatings by her husband, was afraid to ask the police for help because she was not yet a citizen. Through a friend, she learned that staff from the Family Law Information Center visited her local community once a week. She sought help, and a lawyer with the program assisted her in completing a petition for a domestic violence restraining order and provided her with information about how to obtain legal status under the Violence Against Women Act. The lawyer also helped her prepare a marital dissolution petition, request child support, and seek custody of her daughter. The services that so helped this woman are no longer available in her county because of budget cutbacks. Imagine the impact on other women in her position, who now will have nowhere to turn.

On a single day recently, the Los Angeles Family Law Information Center served 91 individuals but had to turn away 16 others. Among those who could not be helped was a mother whose nine-year-old child had not been returned by his father after a visit. The mother was unable to get help in obtaining the emergency order she needed to have her child returned home.

Other individuals in courts such as the Superior Court of Yolo County already are suffering delays in obtaining domestic violence restraining orders because of cutbacks in court staff and court hours.

Also being curtailed are other basic services for the public, such as court-provided mediators and Court Appointed Special Advocates, whose role is to monitor and advocate for children in the system. And some programs previously available for the indigent are simply likely to be eliminated entirely.

Nor will the effects of cutbacks in court funding be limited to the poor. For example, if the Governor's proposals for the courts, which I shall describe later, are not passed, the complex litigation program will be at risk. This program, now in place in the larger counties in the state, has proved invaluable in effectively and expeditiously handling matters of substantial concern to the business community, as well as to consumers affected by mass torts, complex construction-defect cases, and similar matters.

At the start of the last decade, business leaders cited delays in our court system—delays that kept cases vital to their ability to plan and develop in limbo for years—as a major factor in considering moving their corporate headquarters to other states. Of course, they desired a favorable resolution of their cases, but even more importantly, they desired timely resolution of the uncertainty underlying their disputes.

In San Francisco, the complex litigation program annually handles more than 100 of the most complex cases. The active and intense judicial supervision of these matters by a judge intimately familiar with the case from its inception allows key issues to be identified and resolved more quickly, and substantial economies of scale have been realized due to assignment to a single courtroom.

Unfortunately, according to Donna Hitchens, presiding judge of the San Francisco court, eliminating the additional funding for the complex litigation program that has been made available to the court, in conjunction with existing and anticipated budget constraints, would leave the court without the resources to continue this highly effective program.

Pilot project complex litigation courts in Contra Costa, Santa Clara, Orange, and Alameda Counties have echoed these accolades and similar concerns. In Los Angeles, Judge Peter Lichtman was assigned a complex case filed against 20 defendants by 250 plaintiffs who were left without the annuity funds needed for expensive ongoing medical care.

Through the judge's close, active, and innovative involvement, he was able to help the parties reach a settlement in far less time than the anticipated five years it would have taken under regular court procedures. Defunding this important program would send a most unfortunate message to injured plaintiffs as well as businesses interested in ensuring the speedy and effective resolution of their disputes.

In fact, every type of civil and family law case will be affected negatively if budget cuts dig deeper into the heart of our justice system. Two courthouses have been closed in Riverside County, where three facilities described as full-service courthouses soon will handle only small claims, traffic, and unlawful detainer cases, thus requiring litigants and jurors to travel far greater distances. In Orange County, night court operations-designed to help working families—have been reduced from weekly to monthly, starting this month. In Alameda County, courts are closing at 4:30 p.m., and jurors are being sent home early. This may increase the time jurors will have to serve as well as increase the costs of litigation.

In Riverside County, public service counters are closing at 4 p.m. instead of 5 p.m. Smaller courts have instituted mandatory furloughs for workers, and in Los Angeles some layoffs already have been implemented, and the closure of several courthouses is under consideration.

Every trial court in the state is considering or already implementing similar measures, as well as reducing or eliminating small claims, unlawful detainer proceedings involving landlord-tenant disputes, traffic advisory clinics and self-help centers, and alternative dispute resolution services. Almost every type of court service is under scrutiny and in danger of reduction or elimination—and the burden falls on the public, which increasingly cannot obtain needed services in a timely fashion.

The appellate courts, including the Supreme Court, also are taking actions that may result in significant delays in pending matters. We have notified the Habeas Corpus Resource Center and the Capital Assistance Project—which handle the defense of death penalty cases—that their budgets will be cut as well. After having implemented a broad series of measures over the past several years, both internally and externally, to improve the Supreme Court's ability to attract counsel to handle death penalty cases and to expedite the fair and effective resolution of these matters, we have begun to see concrete progress—all of which may be lost, and delays compounded, if severe funding reductions are made.

The Governor's budget proposal includes a variety of measures to increase revenues and decrease the cost of court operations. For example, he has proposed some modest increases in court fees and the implementation of a security fee—reflecting the reality that our courthouses are no longer safe havens.

Among these cost-saving proposals is implementing electronic court reporting, which presently is used in numerous states across the nation and has proved highly reliable and very cost-effective. These changes would require amendment of existing statutes. We have a task force consulting with the court reporters' representatives to see whether we can reach some agreement to implement the Governor's proposal. Our aim is not to eliminate the jobs of existing court reporters, but instead to plan for the future. A combined use of court reporters and electronic reporting can best meet the needs of the judicial system and the public, and the experience of courts in states such as New York, Oregon, Illinois, Florida, Indiana, and Pennsylvania shows that such methods not only save money but can provide transcripts that are at least as accurate, in less time.

Another item in the Governor's budget proposal is opening the bidding on courthouse security contracts to all law enforcement agencies. The courts presently are limited by statute to using the services of their local sheriff's department. Although the services provided generally are excellent, the lack of competition has been a factor in the 54 percent increase in the cost of courthouse security in the five years since the start of state funding. For fiscal year 2003-2004, security costs are estimated at $357.8 million, almost 18 percent of total projected expenditures for trial court operations.

I personally have met with representatives of the Sheriffs' Association, and we have agreed on creating a task force to consider whether there are ways under the existing framework to modify the relationship between the courts and the sheriffs to achieve substantial savings, while providing adequate security for those who have business or employment in our courthouses.

The Governor also has proposed shifting undesignated fees generated by the courts from the counties to the courts. This is another area in which I and others in the judicial branch have begun discussions—in this instance, with representatives of the counties.

On another front, the Conference of Chief Justices, of which I am president-elect and which includes the Chief Justices of all the states and territories, last January unanimously passed a resolution urging Congress to adopt a program for Internal Revenue Service interception of federal income tax refunds for persons delinquent in paying court-ordered fines and fees, similar to the intercept used for delinquent child support payments. It is estimated that nationally there is more than $5 billion in uncollected court fines and fees. In California, improved collection of fines, fees, and forfeitures would provide a substantial source of revenue for the state. But also, as stated in the resolution adopted by the Conference of Chief Justices, "allowing court-ordered penalties, fines, fees, and restitution charges to be willfully ignored diminishes public respect for the rule of law."

Presently, of course, collections are a county, not a court, function. We intend to continue to work closely with the counties and with court employees to see how we can maximize the benefits of increased collections for all levels of government. A statewide approach clearly has potential benefits to all.

We are sponsoring legislation currently proposed in a spot bill, SB 246, authored by Senator Escutia, which will be amended to create a statewide system to enhance collection of delinquent court-ordered fines.

Our overall goal is to keep California's courts open not just physically but also effectively—especially for those who are least able to help themselves and who must rely upon the courts. At the same time, we are striving to avoid placing the impact of the budget reductions primarily on the backs of our employees.

It is particularly difficult for courts to absorb large across-the-board reductions, because so many of their functions are mandated by law. Criminal cases must be timely processed or the courts lose jurisdiction. Our state Constitution prohibits the reduction of judicial salaries during a judge's term of office. Security is necessary to protect not just those who work in our courthouses but also the litigants, lawyers, witnesses, jurors, and public at large. Interpreters, who translate more than 100 languages in our courts, must be provided for those who otherwise cannot participate in the proceedings. Providing counsel for indigent criminal defendants is constitutionally mandated—and that expense alone often constitutes more than 33 percent of an appellate court's budget. Much of the mandatory work of the courts involves performing a vital public safety function, and courts must devote their resources to meeting this obligation. As a result, the major impact of budget reductions will fall most harshly on families, children, and civil litigants.

Other charges also affect the courts. Locally negotiated salary adjustments have been unfunded, leaving courts to carve out other parts of their budget to subsidize the cost of employee salaries. Counties have imposed increases for the services they provide to the courts—increases that similarly have not been funded. Workers' compensation costs are now borne by our system.

The judicial branch has focused—from the outset of the recent decline in state revenue—on doing our part to alleviate the state's budgetary woes, and we intend to continue doing so. But we also continue to look to our sister branches of government to ensure that the courts have the resources necessary to fulfill the obligations to the public imposed upon us under the federal and California Constitutions.

A strong justice system is essential to a great governmental system. Denying meaningful access to justice deprives those affected of the benefits of a basic cornerstone of our democracy. "With liberty and justice for all" must not become an empty slogan. Working together, our three branches of government have vastly improved the ability of our courts to meet the needs of the public and to provide fair and accessible justice for all. The budget crisis should not and must not be allowed to undermine the public's confidence in the administration of justice in our state—particularly when we have made such extraordinary and valuable progress, and at a time when preserving and promoting the freedoms, values, and rights that are fundamental to our nation are so clearly in the forefront of all our thoughts.

California's judicial system rightfully is considered a leader in the nation. We have achieved that status only with your cooperation, support, and encouragement. I pledge to you the untiring efforts of the judicial branch to examine every practice and procedure to see where reductions can be made without critical harm to our core functions. And I look forward to continuing to work with each of you in the same spirit of collaboration and public service that has served us so well in ensuring that Californians can rest confident in the integrity, fairness, and accessibility of the justice system we provide.

Thank you again for this opportunity to speak with you. We will be holding a reception on the lower level of the Capitol rotunda that will begin shortly, and I as well as other representatives of the judicial branch will be there to greet you. I hope that you will join us.

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