AMERICAN BAR ASSOCIATION
JOHN MARSHALL AWARD
SAN FRANCISCO, CA
CHIEF JUSTICE RONALD M. GEORGE
AUGUST 10, 2007
Thank you for these wonderful introductions. I am deeply honored to receive this recognition from the American Bar Association. I especially cherish being the recipient of an award bearing the name of Chief Justice John Marshall, a jurist who has long been credited with establishing the doctrine of judicial independence as the cornerstone of the rule of law and essential element in our nation’s development as a democracy. His actions as Chief Justice and as a leading statesman during the formative years of our nation’s history set the stage for how justice is administered today in our state and federal courts. As Chief Justice of California and thus as the person charged with oversight of the largest law-trained judicial system in the world, I every day see the benefits of the course he set.
The American Bar Association has been a stalwart defender of judicial independence. All of us present at this event probably accept as an established principle that judges are expected to examine and apply the laws enacted by the legislature in an objective and impartial manner — and we recognize that most judges attempt to do so. But these assumptions underlying the role of the courts are not necessarily understood or shared by the public — and their importance all too frequently is lost in the 30-second media sound bites that are the main source of information on judicial decisions for most people. Compounding this state of affairs is the circumstance that, according to a recent survey, two out of three adult Americans are unable to identify the three branches of government.
As lawyers and judges, each of us has a vital interest in ensuring that the public has trust and confidence in our legal system. Courts must be able to act impartially on the evidence and legal principles governing the case at hand, without fear of being stripped of their funding or of their jurisdiction over certain matters by our sister branches of government, and without concern that a decision will alienate support from the private interests that seem to play an increasingly pivotal role in the selection of individuals for judicial office.
Courts not only must be impartial — they must be seen as impartial. For courts to exercise their crucial role in the conduct of society, they must have the support of the people they serve. And we cannot take this support for granted.
Last fall, I was fortunate to participate in a Conference on Fair and Independent Courts convened by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor at Georgetown University. Among the speakers was Justice Stephen Breyer. He described a poll that inquired whether members of the public believed that judges arrived at their decisions impartially, in conformance with the law. When first conducted several years ago, the poll found that two-thirds of the respondents believed in the impartiality of judges. However, by 2005, when a second poll was conducted, almost half of the respondents believed judicial decisions were driven instead by the personal preferences of the judge.
I dare say that Chief Justice Marshall, a most articulate and effective champion of an independent judiciary, would be dismayed at this perception held by the public. One of his often-quoted pronouncements may be familiar to some of you. He observed: “I have always thought from my earliest youth until now, that the greatest scourge an angry heaven ever inflicted upon an ungrateful and a sinning people, was an ignorant, a corrupt, or a dependent judiciary.”
Marshall made those remarks during the constitutional convention held in Virginia in 1829, and to which he had been invited as an honored son of that state. He spoke against a proposal that would have permitted Virginia’s legislature, by the vote of a simple majority, to repeal a law establishing the superior courts and to thus end the tenure of those holding judicial office. He firmly believed in the absolute necessity of maintaining a judiciary not vulnerable to inappropriate influences.
During that same event, in a few short sentences, Marshall summed up the role of the judge in words that still carry great weight today: “[The judge] has to pass between the government and the man whom that government is prosecuting, — between the most powerful individual in the community, and the poorest and most unpopular. It is of the [foremost] importance that in the performance of these duties he should observe the utmost fairness. . . . The judicial department comes home in its effects to every man’s fire-side — it passes on his property, his reputation, his life, his all.” True then. True today.
The California court system has made great strides in improving its ability to meet the needs of the public we serve and in increasing the public’s confidence in our legal system. In furthering these goals, we have taken the position that the creation of a stronger judicial branch is an important safeguard in ensuring a court system that is appropriately responsive to the public’s needs while remaining impartial and independent.
The public generally does not have a sense of what constitutes the “judicial branch.” Unlike the executive and legislative branches, which possess historically distinct identities and duties having a known statewide or national impact, the judiciary as a branch — as an institution — largely has lacked that sense of a concrete character transcending the individual courts and judges of which the branch is comprised.
Here in California, as part of our efforts to ensure an impartial and effective judicial branch, we have committed ourselves — with the assistance of the executive and legislative branches, and others — to building a strong statewide judicial institutional identity and infrastructure. Our intention is to provide a stable foundation of funding and resources for the court system as a whole, as a means of ensuring consistently fair and accessible justice across the 58 counties of our state — counties that range from Alpine County with approximately 1250 residents and 2 judges, to Los Angeles County with more than 10 million residents and 600 bench officers. And our increasingly diverse population constantly poses new challenges for the courts. Each year, for example, more than 100 languages are spoken in our courts — running the gamut from A to Z — Albanian to Zapotec.
The role of the judicial branch is under sharp scrutiny today in every part of our nation — a circumstance not without historical precedent. But history also teaches us that if our judicial system and the rule of law are to continue to endure and flourish, constant effort and commitment on our part will be required. John Marshall’s clarity of vision — so vividly articulated — concerning the essential role played by the fair administration of justice in our daily lives, sets a tone for our efforts here at home and in the example we set for emerging democracies around the world. Marshall has provided a goal that remains highly relevant to our time.
Once again, I very much appreciate the great honor you have conferred upon me. I am pleased that some of my fellow chief justices, chief judges, and judges from other federal and state courts are present this evening, along with many California judges and members of the staff of the California Supreme Court and the Administrative Office of the Courts. I accept this award on behalf of all the 19,000 individuals who comprise California’s judicial branch and who are so ardently engaged in daily efforts to improve the administration of justice for all Californians. Thank you.