A PERSPECTIVE FROM THE CONFERENCE OF CHIEF JUSTICES
By Chief Justice Ronald M. George
National Consortium on Race and Ethnic Fairness
Washington, D.C., April 16, 2004
Good morning. I want to thank Justice Serna, Justice of the New Mexico Supreme Court and moderator of this program, for inviting me to join you. I have been asked to speak to you today to provide some background on how the Conference of Chief Justices has grappled with issues concerning access and fairness in our courts. This year I am honored to serve as president of that organization.
As you may know, the Conference of Chief Justices is a national organization that includes the Chief Justices of the 50 states as well as the commonwealths and territories of the United States. The mission of the conference is to improve the administration of justice by effectively mobilizing the collective resources of the highest judicial officers of the states and the other entities represented in its ranks. The group's focus has been on promoting the vitality, independence, and effectiveness of state judicial systems. Together we have been able to develop proposals for change that advance our common goals and provide better public service.
The Conference of State Court Administrators, or COSCA, works closely with the CCJ. Much has changed during the past 20 years in how courts are run. The public's expectations about our judicial system have increased, and at the same time an ever-growing number of services are being provided by the courts to meet the needs of an increasingly diversified population. These developments have contributed to the growth of a highly skilled cadre of professional court administrators, many of them members of COSCA.
Over the years, Chief Justices and state court administrators across our nation have found that by working as a team they can provide the most effective leadership for their state's judicial branch. Cooperation between the individuals holding these positions is important to the progress in each state. And so too has the cooperation between the two conferences benefited both groups by providing another means of exchanging ideas and best practices about effective ways to meet the often daunting challenges facing the courts today.
The work of CCJ and COSCA is made possible through the assistance of staff from the National Center for State Courts, the sponsor of this National Consortium meeting. As chair of CCJ, I also serve as chairperson of the board of the National Center. The Chief Justices meet twice a year, once in concert with COSCA. Committees focus on issues of particular urgency and importance between the meetings, and seek input and report at our regular meetings—or in between if the need arises.
These two organizations, together with the National Center for State Courts, have proven to be fertile breeding grounds for innovative ideas and programs that have spread throughout the states. Many have touched on the crucial issues of access and fairness for all those who resort to the courts, particularly for members of racial and ethnic minorities.
The focus of state courts on these issues is particularly important because more than 90 percent of litigation in this country occurs in the state courts. Decisions are made every day in the state courts affecting basic interests—including personal liberty, family relationships, employment rights, freedom from discrimination, and the future of our children. The public is entitled in every state to a forum accessible to all and free from bias—regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, disability, or economic status. CCJ and COSCA are committed to working to achieve that goal.
In the late 1980s, court systems across the nation began to create special committees to study gender bias in the courts. CCJ and COSCA proved to be excellent vehicles for communicating the progress of these efforts and the results being gathered across the nation. In 1986 the first Discrimination in the Courts Committee, now known as the Joint CCJ-COSCA Committee on Access to and Fairness in the Courts, was appointed. The group's current chairs are Chief Justice Ronald Moon from Hawaii and Ohio Administrative Director of the Courts Steven Hollon.
By 1988 the decision was made to designate the group as a standing committee of the conference. That same year, CCJ adopted two resolutions proposed by the committee. The first urged state judicial leaders to encourage nondiscriminatory employment policies and programs in their workforces in order to attract the full participation of all segments of society. The conference also called upon the individuals in our sister branches of government engaged in the selection and appointment of persons to the bench to incorporate these values in fulfilling their role.
Later that year, the conference urged every Chief Justice "to establish separate task forces devoted to the study of (1) gender bias in the court system and (2) minority concerns as they relate to the judicial system."
California was an early participant in these efforts. In 1987 an Advisory Committee on Gender Bias in the Courts began its work in our state. After it submitted its recommendations, I was fortunate to serve from 1991 to 1994 as the Chair of the Advisory Committee to Implement the Gender Fairness Report, which encompassed approximately 65 specific recommendations.
In 1991 the California Advisory Committee on Racial and Ethnic Bias in the Courts was created. Finally, in 1994 an umbrella group, the Access and Fairness Advisory Committee, was created by our state's Judicial Council to review and make recommendations about fairness issues in the courts related to race, ethnicity, gender, disabilities, and sexual orientation.
Our experience in California was echoed in states across our nation. The information that was gleaned from the various task forces was disseminated among the states, as was information about the development of educational and other programs aimed at helping eradicate not only bias but—equally importantly—the appearance of bias from our courts.
The importance of this subject to the Conference of Chief Justices is reflected in the steady stream of resolutions it has passed over the years. In 1993 the conference adopted a Resolution Urging Further Efforts for Equal Treatment of All Persons, reiterating the call of its earlier resolution in 1988 by calling on all Chiefs to establish task forces "to remedy any discrimination and to implement the recommendations of the task force studies."
A year later, the conference endorsed the First National Conference on Eliminating Racial and Ethnic Bias in the Courts, conducted by the National Center and the State Justice Institute. The resolution urged each Chief Justice to send a representative state team to the conference and to give full consideration to the team's recommendations. The recommendations of that first conference, including the creation of an information clearinghouse capable of conducting national research and developing practical tools, were endorsed by the conference the next year.
Showing its continuing commitment as a national force, the Conference of Chief Justices returned in 1997 to the subject of establishing state task forces to study bias in the courts, and urged the Chief Justices of those states that had not yet employed such committees to appoint them.
A resolution adopted by the conference in 2001 reflects the expansion of its vision to the goal of equal access for all, and its embrace of cooperation with state and local bar organizations and other legal providers. The stated aims of this resolution included removing any physical, economic, psychological, and language barriers to access; establishing and increasing public funding and support to assist those persons engaged in civil litigation in obtaining meaningful access to the judicial system; and exploring ways to expand the types of assistance available to self-represented litigants.
And in 2002 the conference adopted a resolution endorsing principles and strategies set forth in a COSCA White Paper on State Courts' Responsibility to Address Issues of Racial and Ethnic Fairness and continuing to urge state judiciaries to address bias and take a leadership role in eradicating it in the justice system. This last resolution also demonstrates the global view taken by the conference, as it has urged courts to engage in outreach, initiate interbranch dialogue and cooperation at all levels of government, share strategies and information, and maintain a high-visibility role in court leadership.
The conference's expanded sphere of action reflects the growing awareness in many jurisdictions that courts must take a positive and active role in ensuring the effective administration of justice. As the original measures to address various forms of bias became increasingly institutionalized and effective within the judicial system, courts have focused on other areas of grave concern as well. The growing number of self-represented litigants, particularly in family law matters, places unique strains on court systems structured to address the traditional needs of litigants represented by learned counsel.
At the same time, those appearing in our courts are drawn from ever more diverse backgrounds. It has become clear that adequate access to justice means far more than simply opening the courthouse doors. It requires ensuring that access is meaningful and can be utilized to vindicate the rights of all those who look to the court system for the fair adjudication of their disputes.
California, once again, provides an excellent illustration of the increasingly complex needs of litigants and the concomitant demands on the courts. Every year, more than 100 languages are translated in the courthouses of California, literally from A to Z—Albanian to Zapotec. At the same time, in some courts more than 70 percent of family law litigants have no counsel to assist them. Our state has the largest judicial system anywhere—with approximately 1,600 judges, 400 subordinate judicial officers, 19,000 court employees, and a budget of $2.6 billion. California contains counties that range in size from one with 1,200 residents to one with more than 10 million, located in every environment-urban, suburban, undeveloped, mountain, desert, temperate, and beachfront. California often is found on the leading edge of the next wave of challenges.
Our efforts to improve meaningful access include an award-winning website offering a broad array of information and assistance to self-represented litigants. Available in English and in Spanish, portions already have been translated into other languages spoken by large segments of our community, and further expansion is under way.
Some of our courts have installed user-friendly kiosks to help litigants obtain and fill out necessary forms. One court has a mobile court van that travels regularly to remote areas of the county to offer services to those who would have difficulty reaching the courthouse. Several courts hold special sessions for the homeless or for veterans. In cooperation with local social service, veterans', and other organizations, they provide one-stop assistance and information to those in need in these sometimes difficult-to-serve populations.
I recently attended the dedication of the first self-help center directed specifically to the Spanish-speaking population, located in Fresno. And in Southern California, a changing five-minute public service update about the courts, individual rights, and where to find assistance is broadcast regularly on a Spanish-language radio station.
Education about eliminating bias is included throughout the curriculum of our new judges' college and the continuing education programs of our center for judicial and staff education. These examples barely scratch the surface of efforts in California, and I invite you to look at our court website at www.courtinfo.ca.gov to get a fuller picture.
Our state is far from alone. Similar efforts are taking place in state courts across the nation. All the programs have as their goal providing an accessible, fair, and equitable justice system and treating all people involved in the court system with dignity and respect. And the Conference of Chief Justices, alongside COSCA, has been a strong force in encouraging, urging, and reminding courts of their central role in reaching that goal.
I would be remiss if I did not note that many of our efforts are at risk because of budget shortfalls facing courts across the United States. Our experience has shown that innovative programs—often for not very much capital investment—can make a significant difference in the lives of individuals who otherwise would be unable to find assistance. It will truly be a tragedy if we are forced by fiscal constraints to retreat from the progress we have made in providing these essential services.
I want to end on a happier note by observing that it has been a particularly special honor for me to speak to you today on the occasion of this year's 50th anniversary of the United States Supreme Court's landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education. This anniversary offers us an opportunity to reaffirm the principles underlying that decision and rededicate ourselves to promoting the fundamental precept that separate is not equal when it comes to administering justice.
In California, I have appointed a working group to create a plan to commemorate Brown v. Board of Education in California. In the building that houses the principal offices of the California Supreme Court and the Administrative Office of the Courts, there will be a self-guided tour for the public through exhibits illustrating the civil rights struggle in California from the time of the Brown decision to the present, and a class about the decision conducted for judicial branch staff, along with a docent-led tour of the exhibit. We are making available a one-day course for judges called "Revisiting Brown v. Board of Education," and a live satellite broadcast to all the courts in the state is planned. Called "Continuing the Dialogue," it will give participants a chance to reflect about the decision's effect on today's society.
The dialogue that will take place among you over the several days of your sessions will, I know, further the goals we share of ensuring equal justice for all in our state courts. Justice is not justice if it is only available to those who can afford it. Justice is not justice if the courts are effectively off-limits to any segment of the community.
The Conference of Chief Justices, the Conference of State Court Administrators, and the National Center for State Courts are each working to improve our system of justice for all. No less should be expected of our judicial system and its leadership, and I am proud that our organizations are continuing to play an important role in spreading that message across our nation.
I look forward to your contributions, and I can promise you that the Conference of Chief Justices, COSCA, and the National Center for State Courts—as well as individual Chief Justices and court administrators in states across the land—look forward with great interest to your reports and recommendations.
Thank you for being a part of this important ongoing effort. I look forward to working with you in the years ahead and extend my best wishes for an exciting, enlightening, and productive meeting.