Chief Justice Speech - September 11, 1998

 

STATE OF THE JUDICIARY ADDRESS

CALIFORNIA JUDGES ASSOCIATION

San Francisco

SEPTEMBER 11, 1998

Good afternoon. It is a great pleasure to be here at another annual meeting of the California Judges Association. I have enjoyed working with your president, Dwayne Keyes, during the past year, and he has been a valuable participant as an advisory member of the Judicial Council. Congratulations to your new president, Bill Wunderlich, who observed our last Judicial Council meeting to get a preview of what is in store for him on that front, and to the rest of the members of your board. As a former president of CJA, I value highly the cooperative relationship that has existed between CJA and the Judicial Council in recent years. It has served the judicial branch well, and I look forward to continuing this strong and beneficial relationship in the future.

The importance of working together has perhaps never been made more apparent than over the past year. Just one year ago, when I delivered this address to the assembled members of CJA in San Diego, the Legislature was in the midst of its last day of the session, and the fate of trial court funding hung in the balance. Shortly after seven o’clock the next morning, a Saturday, agreement finally was reached, and the long-sought change to state funding of the trial courts was accomplished.

At the same time, Proposition 220, permitting unification of the courts on a county-by-county basis, was only a distant point on the far-off horizon, to be placed on the next June ballot.

As I join you here today, and look back on the past year, the scope of our branch’s accomplishments is striking — despite one painful disappointment. The Trial Court Funding Act of 1997, as you know, included a $50 million modernization fund. That money was to be used to improve technology in the trial courts, provide legal research assistance for the trial courts in the form of law clerks and on-line research tools, and fund enhanced judicial and staff education.

The legislative and executive branches made a commitment in 1997 to provide this money, and in reliance on those promises, as well as on the other changes and opportunities created by the state’s assumption of trial court funding and the voters’ overwhelming adoption of Proposition 220, courts made fundamental changes in their operations. I have been enormously impressed and gratified by the fact that within three months of the voters’ action on unification, the courts in 49 out of California’s 58 counties took the necessary steps to unify. Their actions were only the latest evidence of the marked willingness of our branch to take the steps necessary to better respond to public needs.

Although our sister branches did not fulfill their part of the bargain — at least, not yet — the courts have done so unstintingly. I want to express my great appreciation and my congratulations to you. Every judge and court staff member can take tremendous pride in the accomplishments we have achieved.

Although the failure of the Legislature and the Governor to provide the $50 million clearly is a disappointment, I believe it is only a temporary setback. It must not become a reason to stop our forward momentum. This is a time of transition, and it is only realistic to expect occasional setbacks and unanticipated detours. In New York, which switched to a state funding system, it took five to six years to achieve stability — and we are far ahead of New York in reaching that goal.

Looking back over the past year, it is apparent that the fundamental benefits flowing from state funding are beginning to bear fruit — and that the climate for continued improvement already has taken a positive turn. We must not forget that before the enactment of state funding for the trial courts, we twice were forced to seek emergency funding in order to avoid imminent court closures. In short, although the last few days of the legislative session were disappointing and frustrating, we must not let that stumble at the finish line obscure the positive results that we have achieved or divert us from the course we have set.

Let me offer a few examples of some of the benefits that have flowed from state funding. As you know, court funding was enacted by the Legislature in
September 1997, signed by the Governor the following month, and became effective on January 1, 1998. Obviously, the brief period between final adoption and implementation meant that adjustments would have to be made after the bill’s effective date. And indeed, with relative ease, several required adjustments were made.

For example, adequate money for court interpreters and for dependency counsel was a persistent problem under the previous funding system. Deficiency appropriations for both purposes earlier this year helped to meet needs that otherwise would have gone unanswered. Cash flow problems caused by the lack of coordination between county payment schedules and court needs were alleviated by a loan from the state. A gap in filing-fee revenues was filled by a deficiency appropriation, and either of two bills now pending before the Governor will permanently fix the problem by requiring counties to pay the final two months of their fiscal obligation to the courts in advance in order to avoid cash flow problems.

The cash flow problems we have encountered will be further mitigated by the two pending bills and by one already enacted. The latter bill adds seventeen counties to the existing small twenty counties in which the state has assumed 100 percent funding responsibility starting in fiscal year 1999-2000. The two outstanding bills will add yet one more county and will shift an additional 10 percent of funding from the counties to the state. One bill also will move up the state buy-out from next year to the current fiscal year. These measures all assist cash flow by making the courts less dependent on county payment schedules — that sometimes are not met — and by instead providing funding up front from the state.

During this transition to state funding, we are learning what changes are necessary to ensure the stability and adequacy of the resources promised by the new system, and we are obtaining the necessary funds and the enactment of new procedures that should enable us to realize the promise of the new structure. We already have seen the state bring a large degree of stability to our trial court system and provide funding for operations that otherwise would not have been available in some localities.

Moreover, in a very short time, we have seen changes that improve the judicial branch’s control of our core budget. Consider the following: (1) county funding will represent approximately 30 percent of trial court budgets — as opposed to 66 percent a year ago; (2) counties will be subject to penalties if their payments are late; (3) the Judicial Council has flexibility to set up the distribution schedule to accommodate court needs; and (4) individual courts will have authority to move money around internally, as long as general goals are met.

We also have been granted a $50 million increase for court operations. That is not sufficient to meet all the needs of the trial courts, but it represents a larger increase than we have had in years. These additional funds will be dedicated primarily to improving courthouse security, the most pressing concern for many courts around the state, and will increase base funding for interpreters and dependency counsel.

The successes we have had would not have been possible without the dedication and hard work of many individuals in the judicial branch. In particular, the Trial Court Budget Commission, under the leadership of Judge Steve Jahr, has given extraordinary service. Additionally, the members of the Judicial Council have been engaged and critical overseers of the process. The changes that the judicial branch has been undergoing have placed major new responsibilities in every part of the Administrative Office of the Courts, which, under its very able director, Bill Vickrey, has done an incredible job in assisting the trial courts in this difficult transition.

The other key to our recent successes has been the efforts of the local courts, often assisted by those in local government. Judges, court executives, and court staff in many instances have made contributions above and beyond the call of duty.

There are, of course, many challenges ahead. The reinstatement of the modernization fund is the most immediate issue. I have pledged to make this my top priority and to work closely with the new Legislature and Governor once the Legislature reconvenes for business in January. Should there be a special session in the interim for any reason, I shall forcefully advocate for inclusion of this vital measure as well. I intend to pursue every possible avenue to hold our sister branches to their commitment.

We also need to find a permanent solution to continued problems with shortfalls in filing-fee revenues. And although the Judicial Council has allocated money to recognize the cost of the salary increases that were granted to court employees last year, we need to ensure that we can fund locally negotiated salary increases in the years ahead. The court employees task force already is working on this and other problems relating to the status of court employees, but we will need interim assistance until a final structure is established.

Other areas of court operations that have suffered from years of chronic underfunding also must be addressed. One key area of continuing need and concern is court facilities. A dedicated task force already has begun to study the problems in this area. It has surveyed the courts on their present status, held several meetings to gather information, and will be visiting new courthouses nationwide to see what innovations we can implement in California.

Teams of architects and other justice system planners will be visiting each of California’s 390 court locations to examine their needs. This will not be an overnight process — but we hope that this comprehensive approach will result in a satisfactory and comprehensive solution so that justice can be rendered in safe and efficient courthouses. Individuals should come to court expecting fair handling of their cases, and not be in fear for their safety.

One of the greatest disappointments arising from the delay in funding the modernization fund is the impact on technology. We must move forward in this vital arena. Leaving "year 2000" problems unsolved, and relegating courts to second or third class status in the technological revolution, will have a critical adverse effect on the administration of justice. We must have local information-system plans and other ongoing statewide systemic structures implemented and paid for. Although we are moving ahead to establish the necessary structures, they will not be enough without the financial support to convert them into on-line programs.

The modernization fund, once money is appropriated, also will provide improved support for trial judges in the courtroom. The availability of more law clerks and better access to on-line research tools, combined with increased opportunities for judicial education, will allow judges to work more effectively because they readily will be able to obtain the information they need.

The fund also is intended to provide increased flexibility to the judicial council to allow it to cover gaps caused by the transition to state funding, and to offer relief for unexpected drains on local court budgets. I want our judicial branch to be able to respond internally to local needs.

These local needs are changing in ways beyond what has been caused by the switch to state funding. As I mentioned earlier, courts in 49 out of our 58 counties thus far have decided to unify. Municipal court judges are fast becoming an endangered species. I recently was invited to swear in the judges in Alameda County who joined the superior court upon unification of the county’s courts, and to address the newly unified judges of Santa Clara County soon after they had taken action to unify. Both events were truly impressive and inspiring. Not only were judges and court executives and staff in attendance, but members of local government, the local bar, and the public were there as well. These historic events powerfully illustrated the vitality and energy of our branch.

The Judicial Council is not untouched by this changing tide. Proposition 220 provides that once 49 counties become unified, the membership of the council will change, and the five municipal court positions become superior court positions. That change will occur later this year.

Progress on state funding and court unification clearly tally on the plus side of the ledger for the past year. A few other initiatives advanced by the Judicial Council this year met with more mixed success. Jury reform has been, and continues to be, high on my list of priorities for our courts. Jury service provides a critical point of interaction between the public and the courts, and we must ensure that such service instills public confidence in our system of justice rather than undermining it.

The one day/one trial bill has been sent by the Legislature to the Governor for his expected signature. This bill implements a system under which individuals need to appear only for one day if not summoned to a trial court, or for the duration of a trial if selected, in order to satisfy their jury obligation for the year. The Judicial Council is authorized to provide good-cause exceptions for counties where special circumstances make such a system infeasible at the present time. Courts receiving such exemptions will be expected to establish transition plans to allow them to implement the full benefits of the new measure.

Funding for increased juror benefits was included by the Legislature in the state budget bill, but blue-penciled by the Governor. We will continue to press for raising juror pay and providing reimbursement for necessary transportation and dependent costs, as well as other measures to provide fair treatment that will encourage greater compliance with jury summonses. I still regularly receive copies of letters from disgruntled jurors forced to spend time in inadequate quarters, with deficient services or information provided, and often not even payment of the meager $5 — a nationwide low — to which they are entitled under California law.

A representative jury pool is an important part of our justice system and contributes to increasing the public’s sense of engagement with the administration of justice. We must continue to press for necessary reforms in this area. If we expect the public to honor their obligation to serve as jurors, we must be able to demonstrate that we place a high value on that service.

On another front, the Task Force on Jury Instructions is making excellent progress in its careful and complex work. Providing instructions to jurors in lay language that are clear and helpful and accurately state the law also substantially benefits how our courts operate, and helps encourage a sense of public investment in the courts.

The Task Force on the Quality of Judicial Service is about to make recommendations on means by which we can encourage our most experienced judges to continue their public service on the bench. And the related task force on private judging is continuing its work on the difficult issue of the impact of private judging on our public court system and what reforms, if any, should be sought.

A task force on complex litigation is formulating guidelines and a handbook to assist judges handling such matters. It will be evaluating pilot programs, and the sites for these programs are being selected.

The issues that these task forces are addressing are varied, but two intertwined themes pervade the work of them all: enhancing public confidence in the courts and improving service to the public. The Conference of Chief Justices, the nationwide assembly of Chief Justices from every state and territory of our nation, recently identified enhancing public confidence in the courts as the number one issue for courts nationwide. This problem is widespread and requires a variety of responses.

One of the greatest challenges for court systems is improving public understanding and knowledge about the courts. The breadth and difficulty of this task was illustrated by a recent poll of American teenagers. Only 41 percent could name the three branches of government — but 59 percent could name the Three Stooges. Almost 95 percent of the teenagers polled could name the actor who plays the Fresh Prince of Bel Air on television — Will Smith — whom, I must admit, I could not have identified before reading the poll. On the other hand, a mere 2 percent could name the Chief Justice of the United States.

This is only the latest in a series of polls over the past few decades that display not only a profound lack of knowledge about our government and our courts, but also a perhaps not-too-surprising concomitant lack of confidence in the courts. In these often cynical times, it may be difficult to place great confidence in something you know little or nothing about.

The Judicial Council’s Task Force on Court Community-Focused Planning held a statewide conference earlier this year. Following that conference, local court/community plans are being developed in counties across the state to address local needs and to assist courts in budget planning. The Task Force on Court/Community Outreach also continues its efforts to provide public education — and more forums where the courts can listen and learn in order to better respond to community needs.

Courts are being encouraged to collaborate with their communities in developing plans to improve court operations. The ultimate decisions rest with the courts, but public participation helps to increase public investment in a strong court system.

Facilitating better public education about — and involvement in — the court system quite simply is the right thing to do. Informed public participation is a cornerstone of our democratic system of government. A knowledgeable public will be more aware of the important role played by an independent judicial branch and thus will be more willing to support the allocation of resources necessary to ensure that independence.

There are many other initiatives being undertaken by the Judicial Council, especially in the area of family and juvenile law. One initiative is directed at coordinating related matters — not dividing issues based on whether they are a family law, juvenile, criminal, or dependency proceeding, but instead focusing on a comprehensive therapeutic approach to the family that reaches out to other local community resources.

Themes that appear in the juvenile and family law arena connect to other areas of the judicial system as well. For example, the use of Web sites with information about the courts, whether general or case specific, will greatly help the flow of information and make courts more user-friendly in all areas of their operations.

The focus on more therapeutic approaches to behavior is echoed in the success that so many drug courts have had. And that success has led to a bill granting additional funding for drug courts. The intensive, therapeutically based proceedings involved call on community resources to provide necessary support and make a real difference in individual lives. Such approaches protect and aid the community by providing support, supervision, and accountability that permit individuals to exit the justice system and return to society as useful contributors.

Additionally, fairness training in local courts assists courts in providing service. It helps individual judges and staff members avoid conduct that may, without their having been aware of it, contribute to eroding public confidence in the courts. Los Angeles, for example, has instituted a wide-ranging fairness training program that has been well-received and effective. CJER has done an excellent job in developing curriculum and educational resources available for all the courts.

The long and short of it is that the administration of justice is not simply deciding cases — it includes the environment we create for those served by the courts. Preservation of an independent and effective judicial system on the one hand requires stable and adequate resources — and on the other, the confidence and involvement of the public. Our success in achieving one may well depend on our success in achieving the other. The two really must go hand in hand.

Public confidence in — and support for — a strong judicial system grows out of the public’s understanding of the importance of that system, and out of the individual experiences of our citizens with the courts as jurors, witnesses, or litigants — whether in small-claims, traffic, family, criminal, or civil court. Adequate and stable funding enables courts to provide the services that will encourage that kind of support. The resulting public confidence that evolves in turn will be reflected in support for adequate funding.

We must take every opportunity to strengthen our system, its resources, and its ability to serve the public. There is no one path, no single step that will guarantee a healthy judicial branch. But if we work together and remain open to new needs, new approaches, and new solutions, we shall continue to ensure that the administration of justice in our state remains secure and effective.

We have seen changes of unprecedented scope and kind in our branch’s operations. We occasionally have encountered frustrating stumbling blocks thrown in the path of our progress. But reviewing the past year makes it clear that we have made tremendous progress. The vibrancy and creativity of the judges and court staff in California are unmatched anywhere. Californians are indeed very fortunate to be served by so many extraordinary men and women.

There are many challenges that still lie ahead — and just as we have seen in the past, there will be great strides forward, as well as disappointments that cloud our vision. But I firmly believe that these obstacles will be overcome, and that our greatest challenge will be to make the most of the opportunities that lie ahead.

I truly feel fortunate to be part of California’s judiciary and to be able to serve as Chief Justice in this unprecedented time of change for the judicial branch. I look forward to working with you in the future as we continue to concentrate on providing fair and accessible justice for all Californians. Thank you for your many efforts thus far. I know that many great achievements still lie ahead for the judicial branch and the people of our state. All of you here have a tremendous part to play in that future.

 

Ronald M. George

Chief Justice of California

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