Chief Justice Speech - October 9, 2004

STATE OF THE JUDICIARY
STATE BAR ANNUAL MEETING
CHIEF JUSTICE RONALD M. GEORGE
MONTEREY, CALIFORNIA
OCTOBER 9, 2004 - 11:00 A.M.

Good morning. I want to begin by thanking Tony Capozzi for his very fine leadership as State Bar President over the past year. He and the Bar's Board of Governors and Executive Staff have worked closely with the California Supreme Court and the Judicial Branch, in a number of areas, to improve the administration of justice.

Congratulations to your incoming President John Van de Kamp and the new members of the Board. John has a long and distinguished history of public service, and I look forward to continued joint efforts to improve access and fairness in the courts and strengthen and enhance the bar's service to all attorneys and all Californians.

This year began with uncertainty for much of state government. Following an unprecedented recall election, an unprecedented fiscal crisis kept us unsure of where the judicial branch would be as we began this latest fiscal year. Although much remains to be done, I am pleased to inform you that the judicial branch has continued on its path to greater fiscal stability, allowing us to create a stronger, more effective structure able to act responsively to the needs of the community we serve.

The courts have focused on the two components essential to judicial independence. The first is the very substance of the judicial function: independence and fairness in decision-making. Courts, in order to fulfill their constitutional obligations, of course must be free to determine cases based upon their merits. The goal of the judicial branch is to uphold and enhance the rule of law, while - unlike the representative branches of government - remaining unswayed by personal preferences or the latest voter polls.

The second component of judicial independence - which receives less attention than the first, but is key to ensuring the strength of the first - is institutional independence. Courts must secure adequate funding so they can remain immune to financial threats and pressures.

This critical need for certainty in fiscal support in the judicial branch is not a novel notion. For example, one can find reference to it in the early history of our nation. Alexander Hamilton, discussing in Federalist Paper Number 79 the proposed provision forbidding any decreases in the compensation of judges during their term of office, made an observation that applies generally to the judicial branch: "We can never hope to see realized in practice the complete separation of the judicial from the legislative power, in any system which leave the former dependent for pecuniary resources on the occasional grants of the latter."

In California, our quest for establishing predictable, adequate funding for courts statewide has acquired more and more urgency. The demands and expectations placed on the judicial branch have greatly expanded as the diversity and complexity of our state has grown. By the early 1990's, the situation had become critical. The existing combination of individual county support for local courts and limited state support resulted in major variations in the administration of justice from courthouse to courthouse.

It became impossible to ignore the gross inadequacies of the fiscal structure as some courts came perilously close to bankruptcy, and others cut back vital services to the public in order to retain the ability to maintain core programs. The range of services for the public, the time to get to trial, the hours of clerk's office access, all differed from county to county. Consistency in the actual administration of justice was elusive at best, and in some areas the ability of courts to serve public needs was at grave risk.

The shift to state funding for the trial courts in 1997 was a major curative step, along with the efficiencies achieved by unification of the superior and municipal courts into a single level of trial court, combining 220 trial courts into 58 - one in each county. These changes not only guaranteed more stable and dependable funding across California, but also helped solidify the court system as not merely a loosely affiliated group of individual venues, but as a more fully realized branch of government with a statewide perspective and presence.

The benefits of this approach are reflected in the growth of the budget for the state courts during the past four years. And, as I shall explain, recognition of our status as a separate and independent branch has led to the concrete changes in our budget process that were developed during the last legislative session.

The start of the latest budget cycle was not promising. As has been the custom, and taking into account the difficult fiscal picture, we developed a budget for the courts based on documented needs, and presented it to the Governor for his review. After review by the Department of Finance (or DOF), the Governor released a proposed budget to the Legislature that would have resulted in severe reductions in court operations.

During the ensuing months, I and Bill Vickrey, our very able Administrative Director of the Courts, and members of his staff, held numerous meetings and negotiations with Governor Schwarzenegger, the DOF and other staff to the Governor, and interested legislators and legislative staff. As a result, the Governor's May Budget Revision, as passed, included almost $100 million in additional funding for the judicial branch.

The final trial court budget amounted to $2.31 billion - a 4.4% increase over the prior year and part of an overall 16 % increase in trial court funding since fiscal year 2000-2001. Unallocated reductions were still imposed, although in a lower amount than in last year's budget. These reductions are made at the local level as determined by the local court, and have been a feature of the state's budget since fiscal year 2000-2001, when the current recession began to have an effect. Generally, these reductions have been made on a one-time basis, and the amounts are restored as part of the base budget for the next year - but courts also have had to absorb some ongoing reductions.

The bottom line in dollars and cents for the current fiscal year is a budget that still does not meet all the needs of our branch - but one that allows courts to maintain services for the public at a reasonable level. Some courts have reduced hours of service and cutback certain programs, but by and large, courts have been able to cope.

Two Legislators were of tremendous help in advocating for the judicial branch: Senators Joe Dunn and Dick Ackerman. They come from different sides of the aisle, but were united in their strong support for an adequately funded judicial branch. They spread the word not only to other legislators, but also to the public and community groups through hearings held around the state to hear from those affected what would be the consequences if the original budget cuts remained intact. The State Bar was an active partner in making presentations at these hearings.

One hearing was held before the Judicial Council, the constitutionally created body charged with setting statewide policy for the judicial branch and for developing, advocating for, and allocating the judicial branch budget. As Chief Justice, I chair the Council, and I can state without reservation that the testimony we heard was compelling, moving, and inspiring.

One particularly striking presentation was a joint effort. The first speaker was a CASA worker - a Court Appointed Special Advocate - who told the story of meeting a 16-year old girl in juvenile hall who was trying to provide her younger siblings with the stability their parents could not, but who had succumbed to the drug and alcohol abuse learned from those same parents. This young woman had made remarkable progress, beating her addiction, finishing high school, going on for more education, and returning as a counselor to the drug rehabilitation center that had helped her.

The former client then began to read a prepared statement on what the CASA volunteer had done for her. She soon lost her composure ¾ as did many others in the room ¾ as she explained in direct words how the volunteer's support and belief in her had changed her life.

This was one of several presentations that brought home the positive effect court services can have on individual lives. The hearing before the Judicial Council was broadcast over the California Channel, and her presentation was so powerful that not long afterwards, I received a letter from the President of the United Domestic Workers of America stating that his organization wished to make a donation to the CASA program.

As I noted earlier, the recent budget cycle involved more than successful advocacy to restore judicial branch resources to a manageable level. A budget trailer bill, strongly supported by Senators Dunn and Ackerman, as well as Senate President pro Tem John Burton, Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez, and Governor Schwarzenegger, included a very important revision to the process by which the judicial branch budget is considered by the other branches. This new provision will go a long way toward ensuring stable and predictable trial court funding.

Under the new approach, an automatic adjustment to the base funding for trial court operating costs will be included each new budget year. The adjustment will be based upon the percentage change in a figure called the State Appropriations Limit - a measure used by the Legislature to calculate its year-to-year budget adjustments. The State Appropriations Limit is determined through a formula that includes changes in per capita personal income and changes in population.

In addition, under the new budget process, our proposed budget for the trial courts will be submitted concurrently to both the Legislature and the Governor. Under the existing procedure, the budget had been submitted initially to the Governor, and only those items approved by the Department of Finance were included in the budget proposal presented by the Governor to the Legislature.

Budget Control language sponsored by the Judicial Council, and carried by Senator Ackerman, directs the DOF to work with the judicial branch to improve the budget process to ensure that baseline funding for the trial courts is at a level sufficient to support annual court operations. In establishing this process, we anticipate developing workload staffing and resource models and determining best practices for court operations.

This may sound highly technical - and, undoubtedly, the details may seem somewhat arcane to those not steeped in state budget terminology. The fundamental message, however, is far from technical - this represents a sea-change in our branch's relationship with its sister branches. The judiciary's budget no longer will be treated as that of just another state agency, but instead will be accorded the deference and consideration due an equal branch of government.

This does not mean that the courts will have free rein to demand increases. Far from it. The process contemplated is a collaborative one, in which the judicial branch has the responsibility to carefully and completely justify its budget requests. But changes in judicial branch governance during the past several years have made that a far easier task.

These modifications ultimately benefit the judicial branch, the state, and the public at large by establishing responsible - and responsive - growth. As a result of the revised budget structure, we anticipate a new era of predictable and stable funding, equal funding across the state, and adequate funding to permit quality operations to meet the public's needs.

Other changes over the past year also have added to our ability to responsibly take part in the overall state budget process. Filing fees were increased, and an additional courthouse security surcharge imposed on all civil filings effective January 1st of this year has been extended until June 30, 2005. I want to thank the many individual members of the bar and bar organizations who are working with us to create and implement a new uniform filing fee schedule that will eliminate the $20 security fee and bring consistency to fees in courts statewide. This major project, undertaken by the Judicial Council, should provide lawyers and litigants with clear information on costs, no matter where a case is filed.

Another measure, Senate Bill 246, authored by Senator Martha Escutia, another staunch supporter of the judicial branch, enacts into law the first changes recommended by the Collaborative Court-County Working Group on Enhanced Collections. This measure permits courts and local governments to accept debit cards and electronic payments, expands the kinds of debts that will be eligible for collection programs, and extends a Franchise Tax Board debt collection program. These steps will assist the courts in tracking and collecting fees and fines to which they are entitled, and facilitate payments by litigants. These improvements not only help fill the till - they also encourage respect for judicial orders by improving enforceability.

In addition to creating a better all-around budget structure, the judicial branch has actively sought the authority and the resources to acquire court facilities from the counties that now own them. Once funding for the trial courts shifted from a local responsibility to a state obligation, it no longer made sense for the counties to own and maintain existing and future court facilities. Some of these courthouses are structurally unsafe and need to be replaced.

The Court Facilities Act, enacted in 2002, provides the authority to start the transfer of the 451 court facilities in California from the counties to the Judicial Branch. This year's budget grants more than $23 million in expenditure authority to support required staff to oversee the transfer of facilities and plan and oversee the construction of new facilities.

The facilities transfer measure is predicated on self-funding through filing fees and a re-direction of court-generated revenue, to be supplemented by a future bond measure, which is expected to be on the ballot in 2006. Your support will be critical to the success of this proposal.

Later this month, I shall be in Riverside County to participate in the first transfer of a county court facility to the Judicial Council.

Independence as a branch encompasses more than budgeting and facility transfers, of course. These ultimately are means to an end: building the trust and confidence of the public and maintaining a judicial system capable of dispensing fair and accessible justice. The service provided by the courts to the public has come to include far more than the basic adjudication of cases. As you know, improving access and expanding court-community interchanges to ensure better responsiveness to the public's needs have been hallmarks of our judicial system. The list of programs developed by local courts, often in close coordination with local bars, and on a statewide basis continues to grow.

These programs include, for example, drug and domestic violence courts, alternative dispute resolution programs, complex litigation courts, self-help centers and websites to assist unrepresented litigants, and community outreach efforts - including special Supreme Court sessions conducted in nontraditional venues with an educational component focused on students.

The California Supreme Court has also been active in carrying out its responsibility to supervise the practice of law. The rules have been revised, effective next month, to permit lawyers not licensed in California to practice within this state in carefully defined circumstances. After input from the Bar, the court also adopted rules permitting lawyers to breach their duty of confidentiality if they become aware - through their representation - of potential harm to other persons. Additionally, the court continues to consider recommendations from a committee appointed to review the lawyer regulation system.

The court itself continues to review practices and procedures at every level. One continuing area of major concern is the representation of defendants on death row. I am very pleased that we have made good progress in reducing the backlog of inmates without counsel on appeal. But there remain far too many defendants who must wait far too long for counsel to assist with their direct appeal - and even longer for counsel to help pursue possible habeas corpus relief.

With the court's cooperation and encouragement, the Habeas Corpus Resource Center, with assistance from the California Appellate Project, has launched a major project to qualify, attract, and offer guidance to law firms willing to accept appointment as counsel to handle certain capital habeas corpus matters.

The resource center provides sophisticated and targeted training and assistance for these law firms, and Lynne Coffin, former State Public Defender has contracted with the court to directly mentor them. The response from the firms that have been appointed to date and begun the process has been very positive, and I encourage more of you to consider this program. It offers unique training, including writing skills and organizational instruction transferable to almost any case, and a chance to make a quasi-pro bono contribution for which you will in fact receive meaningful compensation.

The cooperation between the Bar and the judicial branch also is reflected in the joint effort of the State Bar Foundation and the Judicial Council to distribute the $10 million Equal Access Fund annually allocated by the Legislature to promote activities designed to improve access to the courts.

Other efforts to improve and facilitate the practice of law continue. The difficult task of revising the appellate rules of court has been completed, under the leadership of my colleague Justice Joyce Kennard and the Judicial Council's Appellate Advisory Committee, which she chairs.

The new plain-language civil jury instructions, developed by the Judicial Council under the stewardship of Court of Appeal Justice James Ward, have been embraced by lawyers and courts across the state, and their use continues to be monitored closely to determine whether revisions are in order. There have been several circulations of criminal jury instructions for comment, and the committee working on their development, headed by Court of Appeal Justice Carol Corrigan, hopes to complete its work in approximately one more year.

Advances in technology, particularly the development of a uniform case management system, are aimed at improving the internal management of cases, and at providing more information more easily for the public and litigants. Information on cases in which there is great public and media interest has been made electronically available, and we are moving toward electronic case filing as well.

I invite you to visit the judicial branch website to get a fuller idea of the incredible activity and innovation going on in the judicial branch. And I invite you to participate in the next round of efforts to improve the administration of justice in our state. Lawyers serve on almost every one of the numerous Judicial Council committees and Task Forces, and the Council's proposals are circulated for comment on a regular basis - comment that is carefully and thoughtfully considered.

Our court system is becoming ever more worthy of the designation "judicial branch." We have taken on unprecedented responsibility for improving access, providing accurate fiscal information, and better communicating with lawyers, litigants, and the public. We have become active guardians of judicial independence and of the rule of law.

These days we sometimes hear the courts and the bar criticized as impediments to the best interests of our nation. I disagree. The judges and lawyers of our state are committed guardians of the rule of law and of the rights of all Californians. Every day they can be found reaching out to all segments of the community, developing programs to assist self-represented and underserved litigants, contributing pro bono services, representing clients ethically and effectively, and impartially adjudicating civil disputes and criminal charges. In my view, our legal and judicial system - and those who labor in its law offices and courthouses - deserve praise and gratitude from those who cherish our nation and the freedoms it extols.

As Chief Justice of California, I have the great honor and opportunity to work with extraordinary members of the bench, court staff, and the bar every day. They continue to amaze me with their vision, and to inspire me with their dedication. Together, we have made a difference. Together we can do more.

Thank you for inviting me to join you today. I look forward to continuing to work with you in the future to serve the people of our state and to keep our system of justice strong, independent, and the guardian of our rights.

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RONALD M. GEORGE
CHIEF JUSTICE OF CALIFORNIA

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