Chief Justice Speech - September 6, 2003

STATE OF THE JUDICIARY
ANNUAL MEETING OF THE STATE BAR OF CALIFORNIA
CHIEF JUSTICE RONALD M. GEORGE
SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 6, 2003
ANAHEIM, CALIFORNIA

Good morning. I am pleased once again to have the opportunity to address the Conference of Delegates and the leaders of California's state and local bar associations. First, I want to thank Jim Herman, the outgoing President of the State Bar, for his outstanding cooperation with the Supreme Court and for his many efforts in coordination with the Judicial Council to assist the courts, enhance the operations of the bar, and improve the administration of justice for all Californians. On behalf of the Supreme Court, I also want to express our gratitude for the dedication, active participation, and contributions of all the members of the Bar's Board of Governors. Congratulations to Tony Capozzi, your incoming president, and to the new board members. The court is looking forward to working with you to continue the progress that has been made.

Over the past few years, the court has been pleased to see the Bar reexamine its processes and focus effectively on basic services that better serve attorneys and the public. The Bar plays a vital role in assisting our court in discharging its obligation to oversee attorney admissions and discipline. After a difficult period, the Bar is firmly back on track. The separate role of the Conference of Delegates adds a dimension of debate and inquiry that can help the profession as a whole continue to develop its ongoing role in promoting the rule of law and the interests of society - at the same time permitting the Bar to focus on its core functions.

While the State Bar has been regaining its footing, this past year has been a turbulent time for the courts, as for all of state government and the nation as a whole. The difficult budget challenges have highlighted the urgency of determining whether the many reforms that have been made to our court system over the past several years are having the hoped-for effects.

Although funding limitations are substantially affecting services in some areas, I am very pleased to say that the reforms we have made have helped courts cope with the recent reductions in resources and have achieved the efficiencies and improvements we anticipated. The changes wrought by the shift from county to state funding and by unification of the courts into a single level of trial court have enabled us to weather the fiscal storm in far better shape than would have been possible only a few years ago. Reductions in duplicative systems, increased flexibility in using administrative and judicial resources, more information about best practices, improved budgeting procedures, informed planning, and an enhanced ability to interact as a branch with the executive and legislative branches all have resulted in a far more efficient and better-run court system.

During this latest budget cycle, the cuts originally proposed in the judicial branch's budget would have severely curtailed fundamental court operations. The Bar, both statewide and locally, rallied to the court system's defense. With your support, expressed in active and effective advocacy, we were able to reach agreement with our sister branches of government — where we had some very helpful advocates on our behalf — on a lower level of budget reductions, combined with necessary increases in court fees.

Although we were successful in mitigating the impact of the fiscal crisis, courts were not left unscathed. Far from it. The judicial branch was not immune to the general fiscal downturn affecting government operations, and like others we must learn to do more with less.

Our final budget for the present fiscal year contains some $85 million in unallocated reductions for the trial courts, and $8.5 million in reductions for the appellate courts, the Judicial Council, the Administrative Office of the Courts, and the Habeas Corpus Resource Center, plus a further reduction of $11 million in court security costs. Moreover, the projected new fee revenue is likely to fall short because of belated approval of the budget. At the same time, civil filings, which had been on a slight downward trend, have begun to increase once again.

Several courts have reduced their hours of operation, both for clerk's offices and for courtrooms. Many courts have open positions they will not be able to fill, thus slowing service to the public. Last year, a few had to resort to layoffs, or to closing down peripheral facilities. All too many projects aimed at improving access, upgrading technology, or increasing self-help services, have been halted or slowed considerably.

The budget crisis has provided a strong incentive to consider what further steps need to be taken to ensure stable and adequate funding for our judicial system. We already have a sense of what a stable, statewide funding source can accomplish: the administration of justice has become more equitable across the state, and sharing best practices and approaches in areas such as technology and purchasing have provided tangible rewards. Courts statewide are better equipped to monitor expenditures, to quantify and respond to the needs of the public, and to plan for the future.

At the same time, the current uncertainty in the state's overall budget situation — and its impact on our courts — have made it all too clear that we have not yet fully achieved our goals. Stable and adequate funding is so integral to the successful administration of justice that we should not have to debate it anew each budget cycle.

First of all, simply increasing fees is definitely not the answer. Many of the recently imposed fees were set and instituted with the cooperation of bar leaders in recognition of the need to ensure that courts were not stripped of essential resources. But we are revisiting some of the fee changes that were increased in unexpected ways to see whether we can return to the original agreement, and examining whether the overall administration of the fee schedule can be simplified and improved. We will continue to consult with state and local bar associations in our efforts to develop appropriate sources for court funding.

Fees, fines, and penalties have a place in court funding. But courts cannot and should not be expected to fund themselves. A fully functioning and accessible system of justice is essential not only for those who appear at the courthouse door, but for all of society. Every Californian, not just those who enter the courthouse doors, should be considered a direct user and beneficiary of the judicial system.

A basic premise underlying the shift to state funding has been that justice must be administered equally across the state. Another is that a strong and independent system of justice serves the best interest of every Californian and of the state itself. Courts must be considered and treated as part of the critical infrastructure of government, not as a pay-as-you-go enterprise whose fortunes ebb and flow with "consumer demand."

At the same time, courts must be fiscally responsible. Unification and state funding have required courts to approach budgeting in a more uniform fashion. For the first time, significant in-depth analysis can be done, resulting in the elimination of duplication and a firmer sense of overall needs as well as local needs. This has enabled us to develop branch-wide recommendations during the state budget process.

The failure to enforce court orders imposing fines and fees undermines the judicial system not simply because of the ensuing loss of revenue - but also because it diminishes respect for the courts and their role. The Judicial Council and its staff arm, the Administrative Office of the Courts, ably led by its Director Bill Vickrey, have been focusing on creating and expanding better ways to recover court fines and fees. For example, many courts have facilitated the payment of fines and fees, including providing services in the courthouse that enable a litigant to set up a payment plan to accommodate his or her budget, thus increasing the likelihood of collection with less expense and effort. We continue to provide for waiver of fees where they would otherwise conflict with our paramount goal of ensuring access to the courts.

Senate Bill 940, authored by Senator Martha Escutia and just signed by the Governor with some helpful suggestions in his signing message for its implementation, was sponsored by the Judicial Council. It establishes California's first statewide system for collecting court-ordered fines, fees, and penalties. The bill initially will require the Council, in coordination with the counties, to adopt guidelines for a comprehensive program, and each superior court to develop in cooperation with its local county a plan to implement those guidelines.

California's courts are taking strong measures to ensure that court orders are obeyed and the rule of law respected. This is part of a nationwide effort. The Conference of Chief Justices recently adopted a resolution favoring related federal tax legislation. The proposed measure would support the interception of federal tax refunds to pay fines that are delinquent in state courts — just as is done for delinquent court-ordered child support. It is estimated that nationally the amount of uncollected court-ordered penalties exceeds $5 billion.

Because adequate and stable funding for the judicial branch is so essential, I will soon convene a working group including bar and court leaders to take a fresh look at what we can do to promote the long-term stability of court funding. For example, policy- and workload-driven funding formulas could help standardize the process. Other sources of dedicated revenues beyond fines, fees and penalties should be explored. The process of how we present the budget to the other branches, and how we provide appropriate accountability, needs to be reviewed. We must ensure that providing adequate funds for the administration of justice happens as a matter of course, in good years and in bad, and not after an annual struggle with uncertain odds.

Seeking a better funding method must proceed in tandem with improving our judicial system. And thus far this has been the case. Despite fiscal constraints and budget uncertainties, the judicial branch continues to innovate, experiment, and enhance its ability to serve the public.

Let me give you a few examples of the judicial branch's continued efforts to expand meaningful access to the courts. I will start with the status of the Equal Access Fund. First created at the urging of the State Bar and the Judicial Council three years ago, with the Legislature's and the Governor's initial allocation of $10 million and the expectation of substantial increases over the next few years, the appropriation for the Fund at least has remained steady at $10 million. It remains dedicated to improving services to persons who otherwise would be unable to make effective use of the judicial system. Along with a number of other individuals, including many of you here and from bar associations across the state, I strongly and successfully resisted efforts to reduce or eliminate the fund during the budget process this year.

This fund is administered jointly by the Foundation of the State Bar and the Judicial Council, and it continues to help finance numerous effective services, including self-help centers - both staffed and electronic — in many counties. Local bar associations and individual lawyers play key roles in many of the centers, generously providing their expertise to establish these programs or directly assisting unrepresented litigants.

Additionally, the court website continues to be a highly useful and popular resource. The site provides a quick overview of some of the extraordinary programs being conducted by the judicial branch. It provides information on the Judicial Council's many committees and initiatives, as well as links to individual court and related websites and case information. The self-help center component of the website received millions of hits during its first several weeks, and continues to help untold members of the public - and even some lawyers - find their way through often hard to decipher court procedures.

In preparing for this address, I scanned the court system's website as a starting point for reviewing the impressive scope of activities in which the California courts are engaged. I want to focus on just a few of these achievements.

First, the Spanish-language version of the on-line self-help center recently was launched, providing the most comprehensive information about the California courts in the Spanish language. Like the English-language version, it is proving very popular with court users in our highly diverse state. The self-help center is being translated into additional languages spoken by substantial segments of our population.

Efforts to meet the unique needs of various parts of the community are occurring on a local level as well. For example, last October, I participated in the opening in Fresno of the first court-sponsored Spanish-language self-help center in California.

Programs to improve resources for juveniles in our court system also continue to expand, both physically and substantively, statewide and locally. I was pleased to attend a groundbreaking ceremony in San Bernardino earlier this year for a new Juvenile Dependency Court and Department of Children's Services building. And the AOC's Center for Families, Children and the Courts recently was awarded the American Bar Association's 2003 Hodson Award for Public Service, an honor that recognizes a government office that best exemplifies the spirit of public service.

Efforts continue to create a statewide, uniform case management system, with 12 courts leading the development effort with the AOC. We are now in the process of implementing a statewide telecommunication network to connect all the courts. The Judicial Council's Court Technology Advisory Committee, chaired by my colleague Justice Ming Chin, is providing key guidance.

We continue to expand the use of collaborative justice courts, including domestic violence, drug, and juvenile mental health courts. These programs are helping redefine the role of courts in various areas, leading them in partnership with other organizations to treat the root causes of certain criminal conduct - not simply to punish the resulting crimes.

And just last week, the Judicial Council approved a report for submission to the Legislature and the Governor recommending continuing the practices developed in our pilot projects on complex litigation. These projects — in 6 of our counties — include the assignment of each complex case to a single judge for all purposes, using judges who have particular experience, interest and expertise in these matters, and employing innovative case management techniques and technology, supplemented by education and training, to meet the special needs of litigants and practitioners in these matters.

In July, the Judicial Council voted to make available to the courts a comprehensive collection of plain-English civil jury instructions. This set of instructions was the result of a six-year project led by Justices Carol Corrigan and James Ward, and designed to create instructions using language attuned to lay jurors, instead of the often arcane language employed by lawyers and judges. This enormous endeavor will be completed with the release of the set of criminal instructions, planned for 2005. The participation of the bar in developing these new tools has been invaluable.

The Judicial Council also has been focusing on increasing the scope and application of statewide uniform rules in order to ease the burden on attorneys, who more and more frequently cross county lines in the course of their practice. In a related matter, the Supreme Court, as part of its responsibility over the practice of law in our state, has established a Multijurisdictional Practice Implementation Committee, which has circulated proposals for recognizing and regulating the practice of law in our state by certain practitioners who are not members of the California Bar. The committee will submit its recommendations to the court in the near future.

Internally, court administration is undergoing profound changes. The Governor signed the Court Interpreter Employment and Labor Relations Act last September. This act requires superior courts to extend offers of employment to interpreters who meet specified criteria, with the goal of transforming the status of most interpreters from independent contractors to full-time court employees. Ultimately, this change will further our goal of providing trained and certified interpreters for all who need this assistance.

The comprehensive management of court facilities poses one more fundamental challenge. At our urging, historic legislation was adopted last year to begin the process of transferring the ownership and management responsibility for California's 451 courthouse facilities from the counties to the state over the next few years. Many structures are inadequate - and some are in a truly deplorable condition and actually unsafe for those who must enter them in order to work or conduct business.

There are two complementary themes in the various efforts I have described to you: employing a statewide perspective to ensure effective and efficient management of the administration of justice - and balancing that perspective with local input and adjustments to respond to individual court needs and circumstances.

Our goal is to make statewide systems work in a way that will enable courts to meet the needs of the local community. Our justice system is a statewide system - in terms of responsibility, effect, accountability, and oversight. Individuals anywhere in California must be assured of equivalent treatment. But a statewide approach to the judicial system in a jurisdiction as varied as ours can be successful only if it develops hand in hand with the attention to detail that is needed for the many local communities being served. Having a statewide system that makes available a menu of services from which local courts can select and adapt can be of tremendous benefit. We must never lose sight of the fact that although the administration of justice involves a court system, it affects individual lives in profound ways every day.

Despite the difficulties caused by the fiscal crisis, and the uncertainties under which our state too often seems to operate, I remain very optimistic about the future administration of justice in California. As President of the Conference of Chief Justices, I have the privilege of working with the heads of the court systems of every state and territory in our nation. Time and again, during our discussions on common issues, California is looked to as a model and leader in the administration of justice, thanks to the efforts and creativity of our judicial branch and our bar.

The size of our system, with more than 1,600 judges and 400 subordinate judicial officers - larger than any other, including the federal courts - and the unparalleled diversity of our population, have made us an ideal testing ground in many areas. Although there is much that we can learn and do learn from other jurisdictions, I am proud that our state regularly is in the forefront of adopting new practices to better serve the public.

We are at a crucial time in history when the rule of law often seems under concerted attack from multiple directions. Those of us working in the judicial system — whether as judges, lawyers, or staff — have a unique perspective on the administration of justice and the impact it can have on the lives of individuals. We each have a unique obligation as well - to ensure that our judicial system remains a strong and independent bulwark of our democratic system.

I feel tremendously fortunate to be working in such a vital system and with so many dedicated, talented, and principled individuals. Our goals remain to provide a judicial system that serves the needs of all Californians; remains independent, yet open to change; engages regularly in self-examination; and finally — and most fundamentally — never wavers from its commitment to securing justice for all. I look forward to continuing our efforts with you to keep California's judicial system strong and in the forefront of our nation. Thank you again for inviting me to address you. I wish you well.

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