Chief Justice Speech - July 10, 2008

ETHNIC NEWS MEDIA BRIEFING
CHIEF JUSTICE RONALD M. GEORGE
THURSDAY, JULY 10, 2008
SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA

Good morning. I am very pleased to be here today to have an opportunity to discuss with you some of the ways in which California’s judicial branch is working to improve its services to the diverse population that we serve. California’s diversity is unparalleled, with no ethnic or racial group in the majority in our state. More than 200 languages are spoken in California — and more than 100 of them are translated every year in the courts of our state, literally ranging from A to Z, Albanian to Zapotec.

Every day, courts are involved in the most critical aspects of individuals’ lives — child custody, civil rights, landlord/tenant disputes, criminal cases, business cases, tort claims, conservatorships, and probate. What happens in court may decide where an individual resides, who will have custody of his or her children, whether a person is sent to prison, or whether there will be redress for discrimination based on race, ethnicity, gender, disability, religion, or sexual orientation. With growing numbers of Californians coming to the courts not conversant in the English language, unfamiliar with the American system of justice, or unable to afford counsel, it has become increasingly apparent that our court system must reach out to those we serve to find out more about their needs, and to respond to those needs when we can.

Courts traditionally conduct their proceedings in a way strange to the individuals who come before them to resolve a dispute. The judge appears in a black robe, seated at a bench raised above the level of the other seats in the courtroom. The public rises when the judge enters, and the judge, in the ultimate exercise of his or her authority, pronounces judgment. And of course, the judge may flourish a gavel when appropriate. In the vision of court proceedings portrayed in literature, history, and television programs, there are lawyers, learned in the law and familiar with the particular language employed in the courts, who lead their clients through the process, and act on their clients’ behalf in interactions with the judge and other counsel.

That cozy picture of a smoothly operating courtroom, set as recently as the 1950’s, probably would have featured white males in all the positions of authority — judge, lawyer, or bailiff. A woman might appear as a court reporter or court clerk, but — like members of minority groups — rarely would be found in a position of authority.

California’s changing demographic picture over the past 50 years has made a relic of that particular portrait of the courts. As society has changed, California’s court system increasingly has focused on providing the necessary tools and services to an increasingly diverse population who bring a wide range of experience and expectations to the table. Our court system also has actively engaged in ensuring that individuals from every background can participate fully and fairly in all of the functions of the court.

California’s judicial branch is a nationally recognized leader in taking stock of and responding to the many challenges facing the courts. More than 20 years ago, in 1987, California’s Committee on Gender Bias in the Courts (in which I was active) began exploring issues encountered by women when appearing in the courts. This was one of the first such committees in the nation and, a few years later, a similar Race and Ethnic Bias Committee was appointed to examine court practices and to discern what needed to improve. Once again, our judicial system was a leader in focusing on the treatment of the varied population appearing in our courts. As a result of these and similar studies, fairness training became an integral part of ongoing staff and judicial education provided through the branch. Our judicial system’s approach has been not just to provide separate classes on avoiding bias — and, equally importantly, avoiding even the appearance of bias — but instead to integrate this subject into the overall curriculum of our various judicial and court staff educational programs.

As various studies on gender, race, disability, and sexual preference have delivered their reports to the Judicial Council, it became clear that a permanent standing Committee on Access and Fairness was warranted. A quick look at the court system’s website, located at www dot courtinfo dot ca dot gov, reveals that this committee has engaged in projects addressing everything from training for implementing the Americans with Disabilities Act to roundtable discussions with Native Americans, programs looking at women of color and the justice system, and the development of fairness education in law schools. Issues relating to access and fairness for minorities and others are the subject of consideration in a host of settings, such as the influx of self-represented litigants, domestic relations matters, and the provision of court information, and often are the subject of action by several other advisory committees to the Judicial Council. Our emphasis is on not accumulating studies that merely gather dust on the shelves, but in coming up with practical solutions to problems — real and perceived.

We recognize that providing diversity in the clerk’s office, among lawyers, and on the bench can send an important message to all those who come to the court — whether as litigants, witnesses, or jurors — that our courts are open to all and that justice is being administered by individuals who have experience and background similar to theirs. We operate with the understanding that there is more to administering justice than providing a fair adjudicator — the appearance of justice also plays an essential role in encouraging public confidence in our judicial system.

The Judicial Council is the constitutionally created entity charged with oversight of the statewide administration of justice and which, as Chief Justice, I chair. The Administrative Office of the Courts serves as the council’s staff arm. In the early 1990’s, the council undertook a formal planning process that continues to this day. From the start, a top priority of the Council has been eliminating bias and improving access and fairness for all Californians — and over the years, the courts have been engaged in a continuing effort to achieve this goal.

The approaches we have taken have been varied and continue to develop as new issues and concerns arise. For example, self-help centers have been established in courts around the state to help individuals who cannot afford the assistance of counsel. In communities with large numbers of Spanish speaking residents, there are centers dedicated to serving these individuals and to ensuring that they have an opportunity to pursue their rights effectively.

Self-represented litigants, many of whom are of lower income and often members of minority groups, also are served by the judicial branch’s self-help web-site. The number of self-represented litigants has rapidly grown. In some locations, up to 80 percent of the litigants in family law and landlord/tenant proceedings lack counsel. The website gets millions of hits each year, and provides forms and information on how to proceed in domestic relations cases, child custody issues, name changes, conservatorships, and many other matters.

The website also includes a comprehensive section on domestic violence, with basic how-to information, as well as the names and addresses of legal aid providers and shelters, as well as instructions on filing for (or responding to) a restraining order.

The entire self-help website is translated into Spanish and many sections are available in Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese. The site offers a wide variety of additional information, including court locations and hours, resources available to the public, and links.

This is not to say that lawyers are an unnecessary luxury. As you are aware, litigants unable to afford counsel in criminal cases are provided counsel by the state. We have, for the past few years, been working to establish a pilot program that will provide legal representation to indigent litigants in civil matters in which fundamental rights are at stake. A measure to provide such assistance failed to be enacted last year, but similar proposals continue to be considered by the Legislature.

Legal aid services simply do not have the funding and staff to provide needed assistance. We are studying other ways that the judicial branch can assist those who cannot afford counsel. For example, each courthouse now has an individual available to assist individuals with child support problems. In addition, a Judicial Council Task Force on Self-represented Litigants is exploring other means to provide limited representation and assistance for individuals without a lawyer.

The entire judicial branch also has actively encouraged pro bono contributions from lawyers in every type of practice and in every part of the state. Soon after becoming Chief Justice, I personally wrote to every lawyer in the state urging them to provide help to those who cannot afford counsel. The former Chief Judge of the Federal District Court for Northern California and I joined together to encourage large law firms to commit to provide a percentage of their billable hours to help the indigent with their legal problems.

In addition, each year, at the State Bar Convention, I am honored to present awards for pro bono service. In my address I remind those present of the difference they can make by using their skills as a lawyer to help those who otherwise might be unable to vindicate their rights. And at that same convention, I regularly am invited to speak at the Diversity Awards, recognizing the efforts of individuals who have made a difference in improving diversity on the bench and in the legal community in general.

Personal efforts are only part of the picture of course. The State Bar of California has taken a leadership role in creating strategies to reach out to students at every level of education, as well as to minority attorneys. Focusing on increasing diversity starting the day after the bar examination results are announced is far too late. The bar, through its Council on Access and Fairness and its Diversity Pipeline Task Force, has gathered data on the status on ethnic and racial groups represented on the bench, the bar, and in law school. It helps to provide mentoring, scholarships, and other tools to enhance the ability of minority students to enter the legal profession, to succeed in the law, and to apply for appointment to the bench.

Increasing diversity on the bench has been a key area of focus for all three branches of government. The legislative and executive branches have responded favorably to requests from the judicial branch to provide 150 badly needed new judgeships over a 3-year period. The insufficient number of judges is having profound effects on rapidly growing parts of the state, such as the Inland Empire and the Central Valley, a troubling development which I would be pleased to address in questions posed at the end of my remarks.

The creation of these new judicial positions has heightened legislative interest in the demographic make up of the more than 1700 judges in our state. Most judges are appointed by the Governor. Some are elected, if another candidate contests their position or if there is a vacancy at the time of the election. On the appellate bench, justices stand for retention elections after appointment and at the end of their terms. The Legislature made clear in creating the new judicial positions that it considered increasing diversity on the bench to be a vital policy goal.

To that end, the Administrative Office of the Courts now collects data on the gender and ethnicity of California’s judges, by jurisdiction, and submits this information annually to the Legislature. In 2006, I participated in a Summit on Judicial Diversity, held in San Jose, focusing on ways that the judicial branch — both bench officers and members of the bar — could assist the Governor (and the electorate) in advancing diversity in the selection of judicial officers.

The bar’s demographics do not reflect the mix of the state’s population, and our branch’s focus on encouraging ethnic and racial minorities to aim toward a judicial position begins with education even as early as grade school — making students aware that the option of a legal career is open to them. I have mentioned some of the State Bar’s efforts. In addition, many individual courts, as well as local and specialty bar associations, have hosted events for potential judicial applicants from the bar. For example, the East Bay Diversity Bar Coalition, under the auspices of the Alameda County Bar Association, created a Judicial Mentoring Project which, last year, issued a handbook for mentoring that addresses questions for both mentors and mentees on how to aspire to a judicial career.

Law schools also are involved in partnering with local bar associations to encourage individuals to consider aiming towards a career on the bench.

Pay and retirement benefits remain a bar to recruiting many individuals, and for highly qualified — and often highly sought after — minority candidates, the financial sacrifice simply may be too great. Although compensation for service on the bench is generous compared with the income of many individuals in our society, it still lags behind not only the amounts paid to first-year associates at major law firms, but also behind the salaries of senior attorneys in local city attorney, district attorney, public defender, and county counsel offices. In addition, the retirement system now in place for judges now joining the bench is one of the worst public retirement systems in the state — if not the worst. I meet with individuals from different facets of the practice of law each year, and I have been told repeatedly by public defenders and district attorneys alike that individuals in their offices have decided not to seek a position on the bench because of the limited retirement benefits and the resulting potential impact on their families.

Before I conclude my remarks and respond to your questions, I wanted to mention one additional area in which the Judicial Council is committed to expanding services to members of the minority community. As I noted at the outset, the people of our state speak a mix of languages from across the globe. In 1993, the Judicial Council assumed responsibility for certifying and registering court interpreters, and for developing a comprehensive program to ensure a pool of qualified competent interpreters. At present, interpreters can be certified in 14 languages: Arabic, Eastern Armenian, Western Armenian, Cantonese, Japanese, Korean, Mandarin, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Tagalog , Vietnamese, and American Sign Language.

California courts currently are experiencing a significant shortage of both certified and registered court interpreters. We have launched an outreach and recruitment program to increase the number of qualified interpreters —and this is an area in which you can help. You have the ability to reach members of your community who might be interested in serving.

Why is it important to have qualified interpreters? Why is a friend, or a family member, not sufficient to perform this service? There are several important reasons. First, the law is a discipline in which language and exactitude are very important. A difference of a word can make a difference in whether one’s claim is successful. Second, interpreting is a complex skill. For example, a proper interpreter does not “report” what one party has said to the other, but instead repeats verbatim what that party has said. And third, and most important, access to justice is meaningless if you cannot understand the proceedings in which you are involved.

Your assistance in encouraging more individuals to pursue a career as an interpreter in the courts would be very valuable to us. My own sister-in-law has found this to be an extremely worthwhile career. One of the Judicial Council’s priorities is to provide a qualified interpreter for all those who need one, and you can help make that goal a reality.

There are many other ways that the courts are reaching out to all members of the public they serve. Whether it is making forms available in several languages, hiring diverse work forces so that the clerk’s office (often the first contact for members of the public) better reflects the community’s make-up, offering programs in different languages to assist self-represented litigants, or meeting with local groups and individuals to find out more about their views of the courts and how the courts can better serve them — California’s court system (the largest in the world) has taken unprecedented steps to examine itself, to consult with the public, and to make the changes necessary to improve fairness and accessibility for all.

There is still more to be done, of course. And as members of the media that perform a vital role in your communities, I hope that you will let us know what needs to be improved or changed. I thank you again for inviting me to speak to you and would be pleased to answer your questions.

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