National Center for State Courts
THE REHNQUIST AWARD
Remarks of Chief Justice Ronald M. George
United States Supreme Court Building
October 24, 2002
Good evening. I want to begin by thanking the National Center for State Courts for this great honor. I am very grateful for the remarks by Roger Warren, president of the National Center; by Chief Judge Judith Kaye, the chair of its board of directors; and the very kind and generous introduction by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.
I also am deeply honored by the remarks of Chief Justice Rehnquist and proud to be the recipient of this award named in recognition of his many achievements on behalf of the administration of justice in our nation.
There are two individuals whose presence I particularly wish to acknowledge. They have been indispensable to me and to our judicial branch. The first is Bill Vickrey, the Administrative Director of the California Courts, without whose creativity, commitment, and tireless energy our state's court system never could have accomplished what it has achieved. And next I wish to thank my wife, Barbara, who for more than 36 years has been a partner in every aspect of my life, and whose love, intelligence, and caring have been an inspiration throughout.
Although my 98-year-old father was unable to come out from California to hear these wonderful tributes and certainly would have enjoyed them, my mother is present and, I am certain, not only enjoyed them but actually believes they are true. I am less confident that Barbara's and my wonderful sons, Eric, Andrew, and Christopher-also present-are taking at face value everything said about their father.
I consider this award not so much a recognition of my own efforts and accomplishments as an acknowledgment of the extraordinary achievements and contributions of the men and women who serve in California's court system-providing, in the words of the National Center's mission statement, "the fair and equitable administration of justice." To these individuals I offer my thanks and my congratulations. With me here tonight are members of the Judicial Council of California-the entity charged under our state Constitution with setting statewide policy for the California courts-which, as Chief Justice of California, I chair. Among those council members present is my colleague, California Supreme Court Justice Marvin Baxter. Also here are members of my court staff and of the Administrative Office of the Courts, the Judicial Council's staff arm. All of these individuals are indispensable contributors to our state's efforts to improve the administration of justice.
California's judicial branch is the largest in the United States-if not the world-with approximately 1,500 trial judges and 450 subordinate judicial officers, 105 Court of Appeal justices, and 7 justices of the California Supreme Court. Our state courts employ more than 19,000 individuals, and the budget of our branch, administered by the Judicial Council, exceeds $2.5 billion.
The development of California's court system has been shaped in part by the diversity of the state. California's residents speak more than 200 languages, and about 100 of them are interpreted in our courts-literally everything from A to Z, Albanian to Zapotec. There are 58 counties in California, with enormous differences in geography, climate, and population, ranging in size from tiny Alpine County, with 1,200 residents and 2 judges, to gigantic Los Angeles County, with a population of approximately 9 million-larger than all but 7 states-and a trial court of more than 400 judges and 100 subordinate judicial officers.
I was born and raised in California and have spent my entire professional career in public service there. Thus, my commitment and affection for California and its judicial system have deep roots. After 7 years as a Deputy Attorney General in the California Department of Justice, with the highlight being the six oral arguments I was privileged to make before the United States Supreme Court, I joined the bench in 1972. In my 30 years as a judge, I have had the honor of serving, by appointment of four California governors, at every level of court in California.
Upon my appointment as Chief Justice of California in 1996, I assumed the leadership not only of the Supreme Court but of the entire judicial branch of our state. Although I was familiar with much about California's court system from my experience as a trial and appellate judge, I wanted to obtain an up-to-date view of the judicial landscape. Two weeks after my elevation, I made a commitment-in a State of the Judiciary address to a joint session of the Legislature-to visit the courts in each of California's 58 counties, and did so during the next 12 months.
These unprecedented visits provided me with illuminating insights into both the strengths and the weaknesses of California's judicial system. During this tour, Bill Vickrey and I met with judges, court administrators and employees, and bar and community leaders, and learned from them about their concerns and communicated to them our vision for the future of California's court system. These visits set the stage for our efforts to restructure the judicial branch and enhance its ability to provide fair and accessible justice to Californians across the state.
The first and most evident problem for our courts was funding. Caught in a system of bifurcated responsibility under which the state and the counties each provided a portion of the courts' resources, the trial courts spent an inordinate amount of time simply trying to obtain the money required to perform basic functions. Neither the state nor the counties considered themselves ultimately responsible. The services provided by courts-and the quality of justice-varied greatly from county to county, depending upon the financial resources of the county in the face of competing demands, and the relationship of the current presiding judge with the county board of supervisors.
The situation was fast becoming critical. Twice during my first year as Chief Justice, I had to approach the Legislature for emergency appropriations to forestall the partial or complete closure of local courts.
In 1997, with great encouragement from the judicial branch, the Legislature adopted a measure providing for the state to assume full responsibility for funding all the courts. This new fiscal structure is administered through the Judicial Council. It has enabled our branch, for the first time in our state's history, to provide stability and consistency in funding to all our courts, even in difficult economic times such as the present.
The next major reform was made possible in 1998, when the electorate, by an overwhelming majority, adopted a constitutional amendment placed before them by the Legislature at our urging. This measure permitted the trial courts-superior and municipal-to unify on a county-by-county basis upon a majority vote of the judges of each level of court in the county. The results were swift and compelling. Within six months, courts in 50 of the 58 counties had merged, and early last year I swore in the last 4 municipal court judges in California as members of the unified superior court of their county.
The ensuing benefits more than met our expectations. The number of trial courts was reduced from 220 to 58-one in each county. This brought about increased flexibility in our ability to make use of judicial and administrative resources. It also led to substantial reductions in costs, while permitting the courts to offer a wide variety of additional services to the public at a greater number of court locations.
More courts could make specialized assignments of judges to preside over dedicated drug, domestic violence, and juvenile mental health courts. Courts increased their assistance to litigants through self-help kiosks and even mobile vans providing judicial services in remote areas of a few of our counties. Courts have engaged in collaborative efforts with local bar associations and held special sessions to address the backlog of adoption cases and the special needs of veterans and the homeless. Joining with social services providers, courts have been able to help improve the future for many individuals, rather than simply redressing the problems of the past. Some of these innovations have been made possible by grants from the State Justice Institute, whose funding I hope Congress will augment.
Our structural reforms also have enabled us to develop an extensive pilot program on complex litigation in several of our larger courts. These efforts have been very successful in improving the processing of business, mass tort, and other complicated litigation.
The success of the two structural reforms-a shift to state funding of the trial courts and unification of those courts into a single level of court-provided a troubling anomaly. We now had in California a truly integrated, statewide system of justice, but it was being conducted in facilities that were county owned and-I use the word loosely-county "maintained." Not surprisingly, the counties felt they no longer had much of a stake in the operation of the court system and often preferred to allocate their limited resources to the provision of other services.
Improving the condition of our court facilities already had become another priority of mine based on my journey to the 58 counties. It was obvious that many courthouses-some built as early as the 1850s and '60s-were totally inadequate, poorly maintained, and incapable of meeting basic needs.
I learned that the courthouse in one large city may be flattened by even a moderate earthquake. One facility had judicial chambers constructed out of a broom closet. Another had fashioned an extra courtroom out of a portion of a public restroom. Without public funds to furnish it, the court commissioner-an expert carpenter-constructed the jury box, the bench, and the courtroom furniture in his home wood shop, at his own expense.
In a few courthouses, the problem with the jury assembly room was not just inadequate seating or lighting, or a leaky ceiling, but rather the absence of any quarters. Members of the jury pool were relegated to sitting on concrete steps in a stairwell for the two-week duration of their service. In others, prisoners were escorted to courtrooms through clerks' offices and public hallways.
In a one-judge rural courthouse that had been the site of an attempted hostage-taking, I met a judge who gave all indications of being a legal scholar from the law books stacked around the bench. I soon learned, however, that these tomes were designed to take the place of a bullet-proof shield that the county could not afford. I was only mildly comforted to learn that they were federal case reports, rather than the official reports of California Supreme Court decisions.
In Los Angeles, I arrived for a meeting at the main courthouse while personnel were still mopping up the blood from a fatal courthouse shooting relating to a family law matter.
These are only a few of many anecdotes I could share with you. They not only confirmed the urgency of the need for adequate court facilities, including security, but also proved, without question, that our state has been very fortunate in the degree of courage and commitment shown by those who serve our judicial branch.
The deteriorating condition of most of California's courthouses led this year to the third and final major building block in our program of structural court reform. A few weeks ago, the Governor signed into law the Trial Court Facilities Act, establishing a process for the transfer of ownership and management responsibility for all 451 of California's courthouses from the counties to the state.
This latest change is a monumental undertaking. It will double the useable building space owned by the State of California from 10 million to 20 million square feet. And California's judiciary, through our Judicial Council, will assume the direct responsibility for this important aspect of the administration of justice-an ownership and management responsibility that I believe is unique among our 50 states. Decisions about our judicial branch now can be made taking into account all of its needs. We have truly transformed a hodgepodge collection of county-based courts into a statewide system of justice.
Another outgrowth of my visits was a firm belief in the importance of a wide range of community outreach for the courts. Expanding upon task forces that had studied bias in the court system based on gender, race, ethnicity, sexual preference, and disabilities, I appointed a task force on community outreach by the courts. Additionally, under the guidance of the Judicial Council, courts now incorporate substantial community input into court planning, and we have launched a number of initiatives to meet community needs.
Jury reform is one important initiative. We have increased the rate of response to jury summonses (and I myself have reported for jury duty) by improving juror service in a number of ways. We have raised juror compensation and have implemented one-day-or-one-trial jury service, under which a prospective juror is discharged for at least a year after one day's service if he or she has not been sent out to a courtroom in which jury selection is under way. Additionally, I have appointed a task force that has been developing civil and criminal jury instructions written in language that is more user-friendly than the arcane legal terminology presently employed by trial judges in communicating with jurors.
A state court website offers a number of services, including background information on the courts, speedy access to recent opinions and conference actions of the appellate and Supreme Courts, links to local court sites, information for prospective jurors, information on rules and policy proposals out for public comment, as well as a link to an innovative and exciting self-help site.
This self-help site offers information on specific court proceedings, including family law, landlord tenant disputes, guardianships, and small claims actions, and step-by-step directions for following court procedures. The information on domestic violence restraining orders includes the locations of domestic violence shelters, legal aid and social services, and detailed instructions on how to seek-or respond to-a domestic violence restraining order. The instructions have been translated online into Spanish, Vietnamese, Chinese, and Korean, and efforts to translate other parts of the site are under way.
Installed in August of last year, the court website has been a phenomenal success, with more than 17.5 million hits already. Not only are litigants signing on, but other interested members of the public, librarians, journalists, and even lawyers are making use of the information it provides.
Family law matters are of special concern to our system. In the Administrative Office of the Courts, our Center for Families, Children & the Courts has developed excellent material for the public, much of it available in several languages. And many family law courts are reconfiguring themselves to provide a global approach to resolving related issues affecting a single family, whether raised in marital dissolution, child custody, juvenile delinquency, dependency, conservatorship, guardianship, domestic violence, or criminal matters.
The California Supreme Court has engaged in its own unprecedented outreach program. A few years ago we began holding special sessions outside our traditional venues of San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Sacramento.
Earlier this month we sat in Fresno in California's Central Valley. A morning session of three particularly interesting cases was carried by the public television broadcasting network and numerous cable stations into more than 200 high school classrooms. Teachers previously had distributed to the students written curriculum materials-also available online-concerning the court process and the cases to be argued. Volunteer local judges and lawyers were in the classrooms to serve as mentors in guiding the discussions conducted immediately following the courtroom oral arguments. Before the cases were argued, 10 honor students were allowed to address non-case-related questions directly to the justices from the lawyers' podium. This was a unique opportunity for thousands of high school students to learn about our legal and judicial system, and is probably the most extensive such effort ever attempted.
These are just some of the numerous innovative programs being undertaken by the California judiciary. Many of these new projects at the trial court level have been made possible by the structural reforms that I have described.
And I would be remiss if I did not stress that the California judiciary has not forged ahead alone. The Legislature and the two governors who have been in office during my tenure as Chief Justice, Pete Wilson and Gray Davis, consistently supported our initiatives. Their actions have enhanced the ability of California's judiciary to act as an independent and co-equal branch in the governance of our state.
In establishing a stronger judicial branch now charged with broad statewide responsibility for the administration of justice in California, I believe we have created a system that truly can respond to the needs of all Californians in accordance with the rule of law.
I am enormously proud of our judicial branch, and feel privileged beyond description to work with the finest public servants in carrying out our responsibilities. But I would be less than candid if I did not tell you that there is no priority more demanding or rewarding than authoring my share of the opinions rendered by the seven justices of the California Supreme Court on many of the most challenging legal issues of the day. I consider myself most fortunate to work with colleagues whose intelligence and dedication to the law are of the highest level, and with staff whose assistance and loyalty are invaluable.
My wife, Barbara, will attest to the fact that my administrative responsibilities often push the opinion-writing portion of my work onto the dining room table late at night and into quality travel time in planes, trains, and automobiles. But it is a task that I treasure and that I would not forgo for anything else. I take great pride in working on the decisions of our court, and great pleasure in the collaborative process that leads to the resolution of the weighty issues that come before us.
I hope I have given you a sense of the recent accomplishments of California's judiciary, on whose behalf I proudly and gratefully accept this award. For me, personally, it is a great privilege to be here as the recipient of this award. It is the type of honor that one does not expect to receive pre-mortem. I hope to show myself worthy of this recognition by providing the people of California with many more years of productive service as their Chief Justice.
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