Chief Justice Speech - September 12, 2009

CHIEF JUSTICE RONALD M. GEORGE
STATE OF THE JUDICIARY
STATE BAR ANNUAL MEETING
San Diego Marriott Hotel and Marina
September 12, 2009
11:30 - 1:30 p.m.

Congratulations to you, Howard, on your election as President of the State Bar. I look forward to working with you and the new board in the coming year.

I also want to thank and congratulate Holly Fujie and the State Bar's Board of Governors and Judy Johnson and the Bar's talented staff for their exceptional service over the past year. With fewer attorneys serving in the state Legislature each year, your support for the judicial branch never has been more important. Our collective efforts to maintain and improve the administration of justice have become more difficult as our state faces its current fiscal crisis. Our task continues, and we look forward to a productive partnership with you in serving the public in the coming year.

I also wish to express my appreciation to Judge Mary Wiss, the outgoing president of the California Judges Association. Judge Wiss has demonstrated an unwavering commitment to improving the administration of justice in California while ably serving the interests of CJA's members. I look forward to continuing to work productively with CJA, its new president, Judge Michael Vicencia, and the incoming Board.

The state of the judiciary this year is one reflecting great challenges, as is true for every level of government and for the private sector as well. The situation is so serious that next week, on Wednesday, the doors of every courthouse will be locked - closed to the public statewide for the first time in our state's history. On the third Wednesday of every month for the next 10 months, courts will be forced to take this drastic action because of severe reductions to the judicial branch budget.

As someone who has devoted his career to improving access to justice, I share the dismay of most of you in this room with regard to court closures. As someone who has served as a judge for the last 37 years, I share the displeasure of many of my colleagues on the bench in having to take this action.

The Judicial Council approved the closures with express authorization from the Legislature and the Governor. The mission of the Council, which I chair, remains largely unchanged from its creation in the 1920's - to improve court operations and procedures by ensuring the consistent, impartial, and accessible administration of justice in our state.

Why then is the constitutional body created to protect access to justice allowing courts to close for even one day a month?

We are not alone in state and local government in having to make such difficult decisions. For seven months, Californians have endured the effects of mandatory furloughs for many executive branch state workers, first two and now three days a month. Although the judiciary stands as a separate and independent branch, it too has had to face the fiscal reality of less funding to perform its basic functions. The unintended - yet inevitable - symbolism of "Closed" signs on institutions that embody our democratic ideals is yet another tragic indicator of the severity of California's economic crisis.

In July, at an emergency public meeting, the Judicial Council made the difficult decision to close courts one day per month. The closure is designed to avoid even more damaging consequences of reductions in the judicial branch budget. Our experience in the years preceding the enactment of state funding for the trial courts provides us with ample evidence of the detrimental impact and uncertainty caused by inconsistent responses to fiscal crises. In fact, it was bar members who raised concerns about the challenges posed by random closures or varying hours of operation from county to county and were among the first to support the concept of a single statewide closure day.

Courts now are funded by the state, although local courts are responsible for their own budgets based upon annual allocations recommended by a group of presiding judges and court executives of the trial courts. After months of examining other alternatives and discussions with court leaders, the Council determined that court closures were the only rational option available to us to adequately address budget realities while at the same time doing our best to protect our skilled court employees from massive layoffs, maintain a more consistent level of court services for litigants and their lawyers, preserve equal access to justice for the public we serve, and obtain savings (about $90 million) from all areas of court operations, including court security - the largest and fastest growing component of trial court operational costs.

At the Judicial Council's public emergency meeting in July at which it adopted this extreme but necessary measure, I also asked my judicial colleagues across the state to join me in pledging to reduce our own salaries - by one day's pay each month - to share in the sacrifice we are asking of the majority of the 21,000 men and women who work in the California judicial branch.

I am gratified to report that as of this date, a very high percentage of the more than 1600 judges and 112 appellate justices in the state have pledged to either participate in the salary waiver or to make a personal donation of a portion of their salary to their respective court. For example, here in San Diego, 97% of the judges are participating in a voluntary salary waiver program or donations. In Los Angeles that figure is even higher - 98%. In Ventura and some other counties, it is 100%. My colleagues and I on the Supreme Court have been unanimous in this decision, as have some of our Courts of Appeal.

At this critical juncture, as we are forced to close courts one day per month, the state court system itself is stronger and better able to deliver on the promise of equal justice under law. With the help of leaders in the bench and bar - many of whom are in this room - and in our sister branches of government, we have achieved unprecedented changes in the structure of the judicial branch. First was the breakthrough legislation in 1997 that provided statewide funding for the trial courts to address historic inequities among counties in the quality of justice dispensed.

The following year, California voters approved a constitutional amendment permitting the unification of the 220 superior and municipal courts into 58 trial courts, one in each county. Unification has allowed greater flexibility in the use of judicial and staff resources, eliminated duplicative services, and led to the creation of new court programs for the public.

Finally, the Trial Court Facilities Act of 2002 called for the transfer of responsibility for court facilities - totaling 18 million square feet - from the counties to the state. This measure allows court leaders for the first time to assume responsibility for the buildings in which they work and the public is served - instead of county employees doing so. To date, 503 - more than 90 percent - of California's court structures have been transferred to state ownership under judicial branch management. We recently persuaded the Legislature to authorize 41 construction projects, and several already are underway. Every month, the AOC responds to thousands of requests from courts asking for assistance with deferred maintenance and necessary improvements.

These historic changes have imposed new responsibilities upon the Council, and upon local courts, while causing California to be recognized nationally and worldwide as one of the foremost leaders in court administration. As a result of these reforms, innovative programs to improve public access abound: collaborative justice courts, services for self-represented litigants, and courtrooms focused on complex litigation are found in courthouses across the state.

Reflecting our determination to respond to the needs of the public, its trust and confidence in the California courts have been substantially increased. Recent polling tells us that 67 percent of the public has a positive attitude about the courts, compared to less than 50 percent in 1992.

The progress the judiciary has made in serving the public's needs would not have been possible without the governance structure we have in California. The membership of the Judicial Council is selected by me from among recommendations made by the Council's Executive Committee. These candidates, whether nominated by others or themselves, have diverse backgrounds and viewpoints. They are selected not to represent a particular constituency, but to bring their varied experience to the task of formulating statewide policies designed to improve court operations. The Judicial Council is supported by the work of a superb staff agency, the Administrative Office of the Courts, the AOC, which is tasked with carrying out the policies adopted by the council.

I want to focus for a minute on the AOC. Our current fiscal crisis has led some to question the allocation of branch resources. These debates within the branch are entirely appropriate and welcome. Some unfamiliar with the extent and nature of the restructuring of the judicial branch have questioned the growth of the AOC. In 1998, the agency employed a staff of 268. Today, 11 years later, the number of filled positions is 887. The AOC serves the largest law trained judiciary in the nation (and perhaps anywhere) with about 1730 judges, a few hundred subordinate judicial officers, 21,000 court employees, and a budget of between $3 and $4 billion.

From my perspective, what is noteworthy is not that the AOC has grown to this size, but that it accomplishes all that the Legislature, the Governor, and we on the Judicial Council have directed it to do with less than 900 employees. The AOC's budget, excluding courthouse facilities management, is a small fraction of the allocations available to the courts - just over 3 1/2% of the total judicial branch budget.

The expansion of the AOC has occurred after thorough review and approval by our sister branches, and this growth reflects new obligations imposed upon it by all three branches. The AOC has assumed nearly all of the court management functions once performed by the counties. These include statewide financial and accounting services, computer systems and technological support, human resources, and a great number of legal services ranging from representation in lawsuits to contracts.

An additional 2% of the judicial branch budget is devoted to courthouse construction and management. This is money well spent. During my discussions with the Governor a few years ago concerning the proposal to transfer ownership of the 534 courthouse facilities from the counties to the state, the question was raised as to which state agency would oversee the transfer process and then maintain these facilities. The AOC ultimately was selected as the most efficient agency to carry out this task, and remains the only state judicial administrative office in the nation responsible for all facilities planning and maintenance.

This is an entirely new role for the Council and the AOC, and I am proud that we have been able to undertake it with a small but expert work force.

Compared to its counterparts in the federal system and in many other states, proportionately to population, California's AOC does much more with far fewer staff.

Another significant area of growth in the AOC has been our ongoing effort to develop a comprehensive case management system. Currently, courts in California operate more than 70 different case management systems with some 130 variations. These systems often do not interface with one another and cannot provide uniform and accurate information across court and county jurisdictions, much less to other agencies such as the California Department of Justice. I have described this situation in the past as an electronic Tower of Babel. Some trial courts are operating on systems designed in the late 1970's and early 1980's that frequently crash. For the first time, courts and other agencies are obtaining a uniform, integrated case management system that will greatly improve court efficiency and service to the bar and the public.

Development of the system is nearly complete, and partial installation is underway. This year, in light of the current fiscal crisis, we redirected $105 million - a significant portion of the funding allocated to system deployment - to support trial court operations, a necessary move but one that will delay full implementation of the system.

We have pursued funding for judicial branch infrastructure projects not only in Sacramento but also in Washington, D.C. I traveled there earlier this year to meet with members of our congressional delegation and the Obama administration, including Homeland Security officials who have expressed interest in assisting our efforts.

As you can see, the state's budget crisis has slowed the judicial branch in its efforts to improve and maintain our service to the public - but it definitely has not stopped us.

In December, the Judicial Council will receive the final report of the Commission for Impartial Courts, reflecting a monumental effort to examine judicial candidate campaign conduct, campaign finance, public information and education, and judicial selection and retention. I appointed the commission, chaired by my colleague Justice Ming Chin, two years ago to study and recommend ways to ensure judicial impartiality and accountability. The commission returned several dozen recommendations that have been circulated for public comment. I know the results of the study will be of great interest to the state bar, the bench, and the public at large.

As the state's budget permits, we shall continue our legislative efforts - working closely with our partners, the California Judges Association and the State Bar - to fund newly authorized judicial positions, expand interpreter services, improve foster care, and provide legal representation in limited situations for some family law and landlord tenant litigants. We also want to correct existing deficiencies in the judges' retirement system to better enable us to recruit and retain a qualified and diverse judiciary.

We shall continue our efforts to restore the necessary resources to enable us to resolve disputes in the orderly manner prescribed by law, and shall continue to seek the least damaging means to absorb existing budget reductions. We are asking judges and staff to do more - with less. All voices and constructive views are welcome as we develop policies to meet the challenges ahead. Such cooperation is especially needed in preparing for the next fiscal year, when many of the one-time solutions we found this year, including savings allocations and temporarily increased revenues, will not be available to us.

Working together we can ensure that we provide the best service to the people of California. As members of the bench and bar, we can do no less.

I have no doubt that the unprecedented fiscal crisis afflicting our state will have profound effects on many public services, including those provided by the courts - ironically, at a time when the need for court services is increasing. But I also have no doubt that - working together - we can continue to move forward in our efforts to improve the judicial branch and the legal profession.

Thank you, and congratulations once more to the new officers of the Bar and CJA. I look forward to working with you and others dedicated to improving our court system. We have much to do.

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