Chief Justice Speech - October 12, 2002

STATE OF THE JUDICIARY
Delivered by Chief Justice Ronald M. George
State Bar of California Convention
Monterey, California
October 12, 2002

Good morning and congratulations on the 75th anniversary of an active and reinvigorated State Bar. I look forward to the development of the new relationship between the State Bar and the Conference of Delegates, a change that I am confident will be beneficial to all concerned. I want to thank Karen Nobumoto and the State Bar for inviting me to speak with you today. This event is something I look forward to each year.

Karen, the board, and the bar's executive director, Judy Johnson, have taken major steps to revitalize the bar after a comprehensive self-examination that has led to important changes in the board's management structure. The Supreme Court and I have enjoyed working with Karen, the board, and the executive staff at the bar. Congratulations to James Herman and the new officers and board members. We anticipate a continuation of this excellent working relationship during the coming year.

Last year, I addressed the conference four days before the events of September 11 forever changed our lives and our view of the world. In the year since, the role of the rule of law and the role of lawyers in our society have been prominent issues of discussion and debate. The involvement of lawyers in every aspect of our system rarely has been so prominent. For all of us, as participants in the legal system, it has been a time to pause and consider how lawyers can best employ their training, skills, and experience to benefit not only their clients but society as whole.

Lawyers—especially in recent months—have been whistleblowers, defenders of popular and unpopular clients, and subjects of criminal inquiry. Lawyers have been at the forefront of defending and defining our civil liberties and of requiring our government to pay careful attention to the limits imposed by law.

Lawyers have stepped forward to assist individuals who suffered the loss of loved ones as a direct result of the events of September 11. Lawyers have provided crucial services to help the many small business owners and workers whose livelihood was almost destroyed in the aftermath of that tragedy. And every day, lawyers continue to offer pro bono services that enable individuals—who otherwise would be unable to obtain legal representation—to vindicate rights affecting the most fundamental aspects of their lives.

The strength of our society depends in large part upon its ability to administer justice for all its people—and on the confidence and trust that the people place in its legal institutions. This past year has been very difficult for us all. But it also has demonstrated the importance of our legal system in securing the underlying values and freedoms in our society.

Over the past few years, California's judiciary, with the help of our sister branches of government, has undergone fundamental structural changes that have placed us in a far better position to meet the need of the public we serve for fair and accessible justice. Since becoming Chief Justice in 1996, I have worked with the Judicial Council—the constitutionally created entity charged with setting statewide policy for the courts, which, as Chief Justice, I chair—to bring about reforms that are helping to ensure that justice is administered fairly and consistently across the state of California.

Underlying our ability to develop improved procedures and services for users of the court system has been a series of major changes in the structure of the judicial system that we have been able to bring about with the assistance of the executive and legislative branches.

First, in 1997, the adoption of a system for state funding of the trial courts provided a stable and dependable source of income for the courts, as well as the means to have policy drive the administration of justice and promote equal access to justice. Prior to the enactment of that legislation, the courts often found themselves struggling simply to make ends meet.

Our state and national economies today are facing severe challenges. Like every other governmental entity, the courts face budget reductions. Unlike the system in existence in years past, however, state funding enables the judicial branch to allocate equally and with the least possible detriment the burden of these reductions. I hope that bar leaders will work with presiding judges and court executives in providing statewide leadership to minimize the adverse consequences to the public caused by these cutbacks.

The second major reform took place in 1998, when the electorate adopted Proposition 220, the constitutional amendment that allowed the trial courts of each county to unify into a single superior court. The judiciary's response was swift and universal: by the end of that year, the trial courts in 50 of the 58 counties had merged, and early last year I swore in the last four municipal court judges as members of a unified court, completing the transition from 220 California trial courts to 58—one in each county.

As I appear before you this morning, I remember the exhilaration I felt in 1997, when I was able to announce to the Conference of Delegates that only a few hours earlier, the state Trial Court Funding Act had been enacted, late at night during the last day of the legislative session. Five years later, I am equally pleased to announce the enactment of the Court Facilities Bill two weeks ago. This third landmark structural reform completes the process of transforming the trial courts from what were county components of our judicial branch into what is now an integrated, truly statewide judicial system.

The status of courthouse facilities had been the one final piece of the puzzle that was not yet in place. When state funding was adopted, the courthouses in which the trial courts performed their functions were expressly exempted from the state's control, and the question whether to relieve the counties of this obligation was left deliberately for a later day.

This action created a troubling and anomalous situation. The trial courts had become the state's responsibility, but the ownership and management of the buildings in which these courts continued to operate remained with the counties, which were no longer involved in the operations of the courts and thus had a diminishing interest in their welfare.

In October 2001, the Task Force on Court Facilities, created by the Legislature and including diverse representatives from all three branches of government, issued its report after three years of study.

The report disclosed that 54 percent of court space is located in buildings that are rated either functionally deficient or marginal—some of them posing severe seismic or health problems to litigants, jurors, witnesses, lawyers, and the court staffs who work in them. Significant repair, maintenance, or renovation is required in more than 90 percent of the facilities—many of which suffer from inadequate security, dilapidated and deficient quarters, and facilities incapable of accommodating modern demands. In short, the survey of existing court space revealed an urgent need for remediation.

Senate Bill 1732, authored by Senator Martha Escutia, chair of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, was signed into law two weeks ago by Governor Gray Davis. This historic measure establishes a process to transfer ownership and management responsibility for trial court facilities to the state, under the direct oversight of the Judicial Council, over a period covering the years 2004 to 2007.

The act sets forth specific procedures and conditions for the transitional period and beyond. It raises penalty assessments and parking offense penalties, and creates a civil filing fee surcharge, all of which are to be deposited into a newly created state Courthouse Construction Fund to be used for the acquisition, rehabilitation, and construction of court facilities.

Other amendments to the various penalties and fees were imposed to augment the General Fund, but the portion amended in accordance with the proposals of the Task Force on Court Facilities is earmarked solely for facilities. I appreciate the support of so many bar organizations and bar leaders in obtaining these dedicated revenues.

The historic shift in obligations brought about by this enactment conforms to the state's assumption of responsibility to fund the courts. It recognizes that every fundamental aspect of the administration of justice in our system properly must be viewed as a statewide function.

The transfer of responsibility will permit our court system to integrate planning for court operations and court facilities and to evaluate needs and solutions on a statewide level. It will further enhance the judicial branch's role and its accountability to the public and to its sister branches of government.

The impact of the first two of these reforms—state trial court funding and unification—already has been widely felt across the system. They have enabled courts to make the best use of available judicial and staff resources, and to provide new services for the public. A description of only a few of these changes provides a sense of the scope of the resulting innovations.

Local courts have created specialized courts focusing on issues such as drug use, domestic violence, and juvenile mental health. Working hand in hand with prosecutors, defense counsel, probation departments, and local social services agencies, these courts address not simply the crime that brought the individual to court, but the underlying circumstances that are likely to return the defendant to court as a reoffender.

Courts have expanded the use of self-help kiosks, revised forms to make them more user-friendly, initiated community outreach programs, and provided more services in more court locations. Court staff have been trained to perform a greater variety of tasks and to offer more and better assistance to litigants and lawyers.

Although not directly affected by the foregoing structural changes to the judicial system, the appellate courts similarly have been engaged in expanding the walls of the courtroom. Earlier this week, the Supreme Court for the first time held an oral argument session in Fresno that began with the justices answering questions directly addressed to the court by students present in the courtroom.

The session was televised on the Central Valley and Sacramento public broadcasting stations as well as more than 125 cable stations, and will be carried on a later broadcast to the Los Angeles Unified School District by the California Channel. In almost 200 high schools, students watched the proceedings after having been furnished with a set of comprehensive written materials that explained the court processes and gave background information on the individual cases being argued. Volunteer lawyers and judges were on hand in the classrooms to lead discussions and make this a valuable learning experience. This was probably the largest court public educational program ever conducted anywhere.

On the statewide level, the Judicial Council has been working closely with the courts and with lawyers and members of the community to develop a range of programs to enhance the administration of justice. The creation of the Equal Access Fund, jointly administered by the State Bar Foundation and the Judicial Council, has permitted an infusion of state money into programs that provide useful services for indigent litigants.

A comprehensive overhaul of the rules of court that govern our system is under way. The Appellate Rules Project is revising the entire set of appellate rules for the first time since they were originally adopted six decades ago. The revised rules that govern the filing of a civil appeal and preparation of the appellate record and briefs took effect on January 1 of this year, and the next installment—which addresses hearings and decisions in the Courts of Appeal and the Supreme Court—will be considered for adoption at the Judicial Council's November 1 meeting. Rules for criminal and juvenile appeals are next on the agenda.

The rules of court governing civil case management were revised effective July 1, 2002, providing an integrated, up-to-date set of rules designed to promote best practices and simplify court procedures. A mandatory case management statement was adopted to provide consistency in required forms.

The council already has adopted several sets of uniform rules, and the next phase will be the adoption of additional uniform rules of practice and procedure in probate matters.

More and more litigants are appearing without counsel, especially in family law matters. The Administrative Office of the Courts' Center for Families, Children & the Courts has developed simplified court forms to assist litigants in the highly charged area of domestic relations restraining orders. These forms will be translated into Spanish, Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese.

Similar efforts to make the judicial system more user-friendly are being extended to other areas with a high concentration of self-represented litigants. Some of these innovative improvements will be made available on the courts' website [at www.courtinfo.ca.gov], which affords easy access to information about all the courts, including court rules and recent filings. It also links to a remarkable self-help website that has had more than 17.5 million hits since it went online in July 2001. Nor have we ignored electronic options for lawyers and computer-literate litigants. A statewide rule for electronic filing will be considered by the council at its November meeting.

Meanwhile, the Task Force on Jury Instructions continues its work. The Civil Subcommittee of the task force anticipates finalizing and publishing simplified jury instructions and verdict forms in the fall of 2003. The committee has benefited from helpful comments from the bar. The next release of draft criminal instructions is planned for next year.

In response to a legislative directive, the Judicial Council also adopted the first set of ethics standards for arbitrators in contractual arbitrations. These comprehensive standards are designed to address concerns about the fairness of private dispute resolution processes and were developed with the participation of a 19?member panel of experts on arbitrator ethics drawn from every facet of the interested legal and arbitration communities.

The standards establish the paramount duty of arbitrators to act in a manner that upholds the integrity and fairness of the arbitration process. To further this goal, the standards impose expanded disclosure requirements to ensure that the parties are aware of the backgrounds and relationships of the arbitrators, and restrict the ability of arbitrators to accept subsequent employment, gifts, or honoraria from individuals involved in proceedings before them. The standards are being reviewed after having been recirculated for public comment.

Like the Judicial Council, the Supreme Court has been reviewing procedures governing areas of its specific responsibility. Among the procedures being reviewed are those affecting the handling of death penalty appeals and related habeas corpus matters.

Our court's staff continues to meet regularly with the executive directors of the Habeas Corpus Resource Center and the California Appellate Project, and the State Public Defender. At the court's request, these three individuals have held focus group sessions to obtain suggestions from members of the bar on steps the court could take to alleviate the shortage of counsel qualified to represent defendants convicted of capital offenses.

One of the obligations incumbent on lawyers in our state is to ensure that defendants under sentence of death do not remain on death row without counsel. I hope that you will give careful consideration to what you can do, as members of the bar, to ameliorate this situation.

The Supreme Court has hired the initial members of a new capital case central staff, who are being trained to assist the court in handling these cases more effectively. We also have reviewed a number of internal procedures to improve the manner in which we process these matters. Additionally, the Judicial Council is engaged in formulating statewide standards to govern the trial courts' appointment of counsel for individuals facing capital charges.

There are new developments in every segment of the judicial branch and of the legal profession. Having given you examples of some of these accomplishments, I hope they provide you with a sense of the initiative and energy being devoted to improving our legal and judicial systems in California.

A few final observations: The Judicial Council's legislative package this year was carefully crafted to seek discrete changes that generally were important yet inexpensive. We were successful in seeing the adoption and signing of each of the several bills we sponsored, involving subjects such as improved court security, establishment of a statewide system for workers' compensation in the judicial branch, and designation of the Judicial Council as the governing body of the courts for purposes of the Tort Claims Act. We also have been considering the judicial article of our Constitution, article VI, with an eye toward a future clarification of various relationships and practices as we go forward.

Once again, the past year was a dynamic one for the judicial system of our state and its close partner, the membership of the California Bar. Ongoing task forces are studying multijurisdictional practice, judicial ethics, and a number of other issues that affect the operation of our system. We also shall be pursuing our significant legislative proposal to permit conversion of some of the subordinate judicial positions into superior court judgeships.

The trend toward a more coordinated system for the administration of justice-focused on providing meaningful access for all, and functioning fairly and consistently throughout the state-has accelerated at a greater and greater pace. The judicial branch now has at its disposal tools and talents—never before assembled in such numbers or variety—to enable us to focus on how we can best provide and administer justice for the people of our state.

Working hand in hand with the bar, the judiciary has made tremendous strides. Our judicial branch is fortunate to have the finest jurists, court administrators, and staff working in unison. As I noted at the beginning of my remarks, in a time of great challenge and intense scrutiny we have accomplished much that we can be proud of. Much more remains to be done, and I urge each of you to continue to remain involved in the process.

Thank you again, and congratulations to all the new officers and board members who are assuming their positions today. I look forward to working with all of you in our common effort to make California's system of justice pre-eminent in the nation.

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