Chief Justice Speech - June 3, 2006


Good afternoon and welcome. I want to thank Judge Brenda Harbin-Forte for her invitation to greet you today. I also want to express my appreciation to the specialty bar associations, which themselves reflect the wide ethnic, racial, and gender diversity of our state, as well as the State Bar and the California Judges Association, who have all joined as sponsors with the Judicial Council's Access and Fairness Advisory Committee, chaired by Justice James Lambden, to bring you today's program.

In attendance are individuals from every level of court in California from across the state, as well as some of our federal colleagues. A former justice of the Supreme Court, Cruz Reynoso, also is here, and I am delighted he could join us. I am very pleased that John Davies, Judicial Appointments Advisor to Governor Schwarzenegger, is here today. Also with us is Gene Wong, Counsel for the Senate Judiciary Committee, who has supported so many of our efforts to improve the ability of the courts and the bar to serve the people of California.

Also in attendance are several past and present members of the Judicial Council, the constitutionally created entity charged with setting policies for the statewide administration of Justice. There are too many to mention, but among the current and incoming members of the Council, I see Justice Candace Cooper, Judges Thomas Maddock, William Murray, Jr., and Sharon Waters, Judge and soon-to-be Justice Douglas Miller, as well as Oakland attorney Barbara Parker. Their presence reflects the Council's continuing strong emphasis on improving access and justice in California.

Our court system has been engaged in a concerted effort to improve access and fairness to the courts for all Californians. When I became Chief Justice 10 years ago, the Judicial Council—which, as Chief Justice, I chair—had begun focusing on setting goals and creating policies to improve the services our branch could provide to the public.

From the start, it was clear that far too many members of the public regarded the courts as functionally irrelevant to their lives or as constituting unknown and threatening territory. Polls at both the national and local levels over the past several decades illuminated a host of disturbing public perceptions and the factors underlying many of those perceptions.

Some individuals simply did not see the courts as an option for them—or did not believe that if summoned to court, they would be able to participate fully and effectively. Others questioned whether they, or individuals like them, could receive a fair hearing—as a litigant, witness, or juror. Many simply did not know enough about the courts and how they operated to offer an informed opinion.

Perceived barriers to the courts included language difficulties, cultural unfamiliarity with the role of courts in the United States, an inability to pay for legal representation or to find or qualify for pro bono assistance, physical impediments, and a basic discomfort with a complex system that at times seemed designed more to intimidate the uninitiated than to assist them.

Learning about these opinions and attitudes proved to be a catalyst for change in the judicial branch. Courts depend on the trust and confidence of those they serve—and our society as a whole relies on our shared belief that justice is administered fairly for all. Our court system took the results of these polls to heart and decided to act affirmatively in order to enhance public confidence and to foster justified belief in the fairness of our courts.

Looking beyond the doors of the courthouse to the surrounding community, courts began studying what they could do to better respond to public needs and expectations. In unprecedented fashion, our judicial system methodically and critically evaluated how it could reduce not simply bias—but even the appearance of bias.

Today's Judicial Council Advisory Committee on Access and Fairness had its genesis in Judicial Council Advisory Committees appointed during the past decades to study how courts treated individuals based on gender, ethnic and racial heritage, gender orientation, and disabilities. Those committees made recommendations for change that were adopted and implemented by the Council, the Administrative Office of the Courts, and local courts in order to provide more individuals with meaningful access to the courts.

The population mix keeps changing, meaning needs and expectations change. The process of formulating appropriate responses is a continuing one. Over the last decade, we have reached out again and again, on both the statewide and local levels, to assess public needs, and have worked hard to respond effectively to these needs and expectations.

The many measures already taken by our courts affect almost every aspect of court operations. For example, courts have translated forms into plain English instead of legalese—and taken the next step by offering information in languages including Spanish, Mandarin, Vietnamese and Russian. Self-help centers—designed to guide self-represented litigants through the system—provide clear and direct information, as does a state court system self-help website that receives millions of hits a year. It provides very useful material on family law, landlord tenant, and domestic violence matters, to name just a small segment of the information made available. The entire site is on-line in Spanish, and portions also are available in Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese.

We have made increasing the number of certified interpreters a priority to assist those who lack access to justice because they otherwise cannot understand the proceedings. Every year, more than 100 languages are spoken in the courts of California, literally running the gamut from "A" to "Z"—Albanian to Zapotec.

And we have provided education for judges and court staff alike to assist them in better understanding the cultural differences that may lead to misunderstanding. We have made jury service easier by abolishing the lengthy periods prospective jurors must spend in jury assembly rooms, requiring instead that they serve only for one day or one trial. And we have developed jury instructions that use language designed for the layman, not for the lawyer.

I personally have been engaged for many years in efforts to improve the ability of courts to responsibly meet the expectations of all members of the community. I was appointed in the late 1980's to chair the Advisory Committee charged with implementing recommendations concerning gender bias in the courts. And throughout my service as an associate justice of the Supreme Court and member of the Judicial Council—and later as Chief Justice and Chair of the Council—I have emphasized improving access and fairness, a goal that of necessity entails being responsive to the diversity of our state.

That brings me to the program today—focusing on improving diversity on the bench. The Judicial Council has for some time had rules and guidelines for choosing members of the council, and of the council's advisory committees and task forces, that encourage the selection of individuals with varied backgrounds, experience, and expertise. I appoint individuals to the council not to serve as representatives of a particular court or constituency—but to bring to bear their knowledge and experience to help the Council decide what works best for the courts and the public they serve.

Working with the bar, I have participated in numerous programs with specialty bar associations and each year participate in the program honoring the recipients of Diversity Awards at the State Bar, as well as the Pro Bono Awards event recognizing the contributions of lawyers to underserved segments of society.

Today's program is a further manifestation of the entire court system's interest—bench and bar—in making the courts open and responsive to all Californians. The diversity of California is one of its greatest strengths. Having individuals who reflect that diversity working in the courthouse, particularly on the bench, helps to reinforce the important message that ours is a system open to all—and that individuals drawn from any segment of society can preside fairly and objectively over claims involving Californians from all backgrounds.

The appearance of justice, and the expectation that justice will, in fact be rendered, is an important component to ensuring public trust and confidence in our justice system.

Today's program is designed to explore ways in which the bench and bar can encourage more diversity on the bench. The selection of judicial officers is, of course, a gubernatorial—and electoral—responsibility. Nevertheless, the judicial branch—bench and bar alike—can help by ensuring that legal practitioners from diverse backgrounds are made aware of judicial appointment opportunities—and by informing the Governor and meeting with his representatives, concerning the available pool of talent.

Governor Schwartzenegger and his predecessors have undertaken outreach efforts that the bench and bar can and should support and promote. All of us can do even more. Working with local bar associations, including specialty bars such as many of those co-sponsoring today's program, the judicial branch can assist in the development of presentations designed to educate lawyers from different backgrounds about the judicial selection process. For example, specialty bar associations can be notified of vacancies and asked to circulate that information—along with guidance on how to apply for a position among their members.

The concept of promoting outreach in order to increase diversity on the bench is far from novel. Other states and their bar associations have considered means to enhance diversity on the bench, and their efforts provide useful models for you to consider. On the statewide level, the State Bar could provide information on vacancies in all parts of California, as well as on the process for applying for judicial positions. Bar associations, on the state and local level, can consider working with members of the bench to develop a judicial mentoring program that offers individuals an opportunity to obtain more personalized assistance when considering whether and how to seek a judicial position.

You will have an opportunity today to explore these and other options and to focus on concrete programs to encourage greater diversity in qualified applicants for the bench. To the extent other factors may play a role—factors such as salary and retirement options—we are working to enhance those benefits as well.

California's courts have a reputation for excellence, as does its bar. We strive hard to be creative and responsive to the public, and to demonstrate and implement fundamental respect for—and adherence to—the rule of law. Embracing the vast and rich diversity of our state—and viewing it as a resource and not a problem can only strengthen our legal system. And improving on our efforts can only enhance the administration of justice and enhance public trust and confidence in our justice system.

I look forward to hearing more about your progress in developing creative ways in which we can bring—to the attention of the entire bar—the possibility of seeking a judicial position, and how to undertake that effort. And at the same time, steps can be taken to help bring to the attention of the Governor—as he exercises his constitutional role—a pool of qualified individuals whose diverse backgrounds and experience will reflect the diversity of our state—and continue our bench's strong tradition of merit and service.

Once again, it is a pleasure to join you today. I appreciate that so many of you are taking time on a Saturday to lend your expertise and experience to this vital task.

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