Chief Justice Speech - December 2, 2003

Remarks by Chief Justice Ronald M. George
Special Oral Argument Session
California Supreme Court
December 2, 2003
San Jose, California

Good morning. It is my pleasure to welcome you to this special session of the California Supreme Court. I would like to begin by introducing my colleagues on the bench: to my immediate right is Justice Joyce Kennard; to her right is Justice Kathryn Werdegar; and to her right is Justice Janice Rogers Brown. To my immediate left is Justice Marvin Baxter; to his left is Justice Ming Chin; and to his left is Justice Carlos Moreno. We are assisted in this special session, as we are in so many endeavors, by the court's very able Clerk/Administrator Fritz Ohlrich.

California's courts have been focusing on increasing meaningful access to the courts and improving our ability to serve the public. Statewide, courts have been engaging in a wide range of community outreach efforts to better acquaint the public with the role of the courts and to better acquaint the courts with the concerns and interests of the public.

Today's special session in San Jose continues an important part of the California Supreme Court's outreach efforts, under which the court ventures beyond the three locations in which it traditionally hears oral argument - San Francisco, Sacramento and Los Angeles. Last year we held a similar special session in Fresno and heard oral arguments in the Fifth Appellate District's courtroom. The year before we held a special session in Orange County, and heard arguments in the Old Orange County Courthouse as part of the celebration of the 100th anniversary of that historic building and of that county's bar association.

Today the court is pleased to convene a special session in San Jose, here in this historic courtroom of the Santa Clara Superior Court. I want to thank Justice Conrad Rushing, the Administrative Presiding Justice of the Sixth Appellate District, and Justice Patricia Bamattre-Manoukian, who has been instrumental in setting up today's program, for extending this invitation to our court. They, and all of their colleagues in the Sixth Appellate District, have been gracious and energetic hosts.

This visit is being used as an extraordinary educational opportunity, and the judges of the superior courts for each county in the Sixth Appellate District, as well as the bar associations in each county, have been extremely generous in contributing their time and expertise to create a curriculum that should engage and enlighten students and members of the public. This includes a web-site containing study guides for each case to be argued, as well as a glossary of legal terms and background materials on the Supreme Court and California's court system. And the high schools and law schools in the area have been eager and innovative participants in making this a most useful learning experience.

This is not simply a courtroom exercise confined to the usual participants. In addition to the students present in this courtroom, hundreds of students from public and private high schools, as well as students from local law schools, will be viewing oral argument sessions live, televised by closed circuit directly to additional courtrooms here, or over the California Channel into numerous classrooms, electronically expanding the walls of the courtroom. In addition, the local public television station is broadcasting this morning's session, and the Center for Judicial Education and Research, a division of our court system's Administrative Office of the Courts, will be producing a tape of the proceedings that will be made available to the school districts in the 4 counties comprising the Sixth Appellate District. Everyone involved in this endeavor has made an important contribution to ensuring that this oral argument session of the California Supreme Court will be truly informative, interesting, and educational.

I should note, however, that this is not the first time the California Supreme Court has heard arguments and conducted its business in San Jose. The last time, however, there were no television cameras, and much less public interest. That could, of course, be due to the fact that the last such session was held quite a few years ago: almost 150 years have transpired since the court's last session in San Jose.

The earliest connection between San Jose and the California Supreme Court dates back to the colorful history of the early days of California's statehood, when the Gold Rush was on and the institutions of governance were not yet fully settled and formed.

The first California Constitution, enacted in 1849, provided: "The first session of the legislature shall be held at the Pueblo de San Jose; which place shall be the permanent seat of government, until removed by law." Within the first few years of statehood, the Legislature had voted to move the capital first to Vallejo, then to Benicia, and then, in 1854, to Sacramento.

Even before California officially became a state, the Supreme Court had established itself in San Francisco - where its home chambers remain today. This choice was authorized by the Legislature for a time - but in 1854, when it voted to move the capital to Sacramento, the Legislature also directed that "the sessions of the Supreme Court shall be held at the Capital of the State."

At that time there were three justices on the California Supreme Court. Three days after the Legislature voted to move the capital to Sacramento - and to take the Supreme Court with it - the court convened, on March 27, 1854, in San Francisco. By a 2 to 1 vote, the majority rejected the Legislature's determination that Sacramento was the seat of government and instead concluded that the lawful capital was San Jose. Acting without arguments and without issuing a written opinion, a practice I doubt the court would engage in today, the two justice-majority issued an order directing the sheriff of Santa Clara County to rent quarters in San Jose and to move the court's furnishings, books, and records into those quarters.

Some have suggested that it may be relevant that one of the two justices in the majority, Associate Justice Alexander Wells, was a resident of San Jose. Whatever the reason for this decision, it is undisputed that the court packed up its belongings and moved south. As colorfully reported by the Daily Alta California newspaper on March 31, 1854: "The archives, and a portion of the furniture of the Supreme Court, accompanied by the Clerk, took their departure yesterday [from San Francisco] for San Jose, in accordance with the decision recently rendered by the majority of the court. The court went off in a style in keeping with its supremacy. A handsome Express wagon of Messrs. Adams & Co., to which was harnessed the private horses of the proprietors, drew up before the door of the City Hall, and received the legal lore, handsomely bound, which has been accumulating in the court since its organization. The court went off in dashing style, and we fancied that we saw the shades of Blackstone and Coke looking out of one of the windows of the City Hall."

The court met in San Jose on the first Monday in April and throughout the remainder of 1854. The San Jose Telegraph reported that the sheriff had provided "a large and very handsome hall, in the second story of [a] new and substantial brick building," for the use of the court. The press account continued: "The Supreme Court will be quite elegantly and conveniently provided for here, as at any place in the state. The rooms, and the location, fit exactly." Noting that it was still unclear where the Legislature and officers of the state would be located, the report concluded, "We are satisfied and gratified to have the Supreme Court with us."

The building that housed the Supreme Court in 1854 at the corner of Market and West Santa Clara Streets no longer exists. It was one of 17 locations in which the court sat between 1850 and 1923, when it finally settled in at its present home - a tenure since interrupted only by an earthquake and the ensuing need for remodeling.

The court remained in San Jose through the end of 1854, but the dispute over the location of the state's capital continued. The Governor, John Bigler - a resident of Sacramento - filed suit in San Jose in district court, as the superior court was then known, challenging the Supreme Court's order that San Jose was still legally the capital of the state. The trial court ruled in favor of San Jose, and the Governor appealed.

While that appeal was pending before this court, Justice Alexander Wells - the Supreme Court justice from San Jose - died unexpectedly. The Governor appointed Charles Bryan as the new associate justice. And Justice Bryan promptly joined with the dissenter from the previous decision, Chief Justice Hugh Murray, and authored a new 2?to?1 decision upholding the validity of the Legislature's actions in declaring that Sacramento was indeed the capital of California.

The court soon moved to Sacramento, where it stayed for nearly 20 years. In 1874, however, the court returned to San Francisco and began holding many of its regular sessions there. Four years later, in 1878, the Legislature expressly provided by statute that the court should hold regular sessions in Sacramento, San Francisco, and Los Angeles - a practice that continues to this day, while the Supreme Court's home chambers remain in San Francisco.

Today, on behalf of myself and my colleagues, I can assure you that we are very pleased to return to hear arguments in San Jose once again. Fortunately, this time, no acts of the Legislature or Supreme Court decisions were necessary to bring us here. And although we arrived in automobiles instead of horse-drawn carriages, we could not be happier to be in San Jose.

During today's session we shall be making a little history too - not only for the volumes that will contain the opinions in the cases we hear today, but also the history involved in the interaction between the court and the public in a most unusual way. Most lawyers never have the opportunity to address the Supreme Court in open court - but today we are very pleased to entertain questions addressed to the court by students selected by their schools. This is an exciting learning experience - by no means confined to the students asking the questions.

Once again, on behalf of the court, I want to express how very pleased we are to be here and how grateful we are to all those who had a hand in bringing about this special session. And now, I would like to invite the first student to come to the podium to address the court.

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