Chief Justice Speech - September 28, 2007


September 28, 2007

Good evening. I am very pleased to be here to join the President of the State Bar, Sheldon Sloan, in presenting these awards recognizing the extraordinary contributions of several extraordinary attorneys. Each year, I say that this is an event I very much look forward to—and each year that view is reinforced. Every group of award winners is different, but one feature remains constant—the variety of impressive and creative ways embraced by these attorneys to provide legal services to those who otherwise would have nowhere to turn.

The pro bono contributions made by these attorneys—and thousands like them across California—beneficially affect not only the individuals they assist, but also the rule of law and the administration of justice in our state.

The ability to provide fair and impartial justice is a basic tenet in our society—but we cannot treat it as a given. There are many ways in which this fundamental principle of our democracy may be undermined. For example, the increasing focus of partisan and political interests on judicial elections—a focus we can see developing in several jurisdictions across the nation—may well threaten not only the impartiality of our courts, but also the public's perception of the judicial system's ability and willingness to protect their rights. If, instead of the rule of law, judges look to the interests of those who support them to guide their decision-making, we all lose.

Something very different also threatens to undercut our court system's ability to administer justice. We all recognize that our system must afford meaningful access to the courts to all those who need it. Such access necessarily includes the ability to participate effectively in the proceedings. And often that is dependent on whether one does or does not have legal representation.

For many individuals, going ahead without counsel is unthinkable. Many things—language and cultural barriers, complex legal issues, unfamiliarity with legal proceedings—can serve as an insurmountable obstacle. But a major barrier, of course, is cost.

An extraordinary and creative array of programs designed to assist individuals who cannot afford counsel has multiplied over the last decade. These programs complement and enhance the representation provided by legal aid and legal services providers who, for decades, have been hard at work providing vital representation for indigent individuals. Similarly, the tradition of pro bono contributions by lawyers that have made a difference in the lives of countless Californians is an integral part of the history of the bar in California.

Despite these efforts, however, in 2004, more than 4.3 million court users in California were self-represented. Available resources have never met the need for counsel, and as a result, the bar and the bench have moved forward to develop new approaches designed to better respond to today's needs.

The area demonstrating the most urgent need is family law. It is estimated that in some counties, at least 80% of the litigants in these vitally important matters have no representation. The stakes often are high—the assets of a marriage, child custody, and support for a former spouse and the couple's children. In an area where emotions often run high and the results directly affect the lives of parties and their families for years to come, the lack of legal representation and of understanding of the court system can cause tremendous complications for courts and litigants.

The Judicial Council, the constitutional entity charged with oversight of the statewide administration of justice, which, as Chief Justice, I chair, has focused consistently on the needs of our state's families. The council created the nationally acclaimed Center for Families, Children, and the Courts as part of the council's staff arm, the Administrative Office of the Courts.

The Center has been a major force in guiding and implementing programs to address the needs of self-represented litigants in California. In the 2005-2006 budget year, the Legislature called on the Council to allocate up to $5 million for self-help assistance. Self-help centers already developed by the courts in many counties provided information on effective practices and approaches. A survey performed prior to the Council's allocation of funding showed that 37 courts had court-based self-help centers open to the public. Using the additional funding, 11 more courts opened facilities, and existing programs expanded services. Attorneys staff the centers in 45 counties.

This is just one example of locally implemented programs supported by statewide resources and information. Close collaboration among courts, local bar associations, legal services associations, and pro bono programs have proved highly successful. No one approach can meet all the public's demands, but working cooperatively reduces duplication and helps keep the focus on overall community needs.

This year also marks the 10th anniversary of the California Commission on Access to Justice. Designed to pursue improvements in civil justice in order to provide accessibility to all, the commission is comprised of members appointed by our sister branches of government, the Judicial Council, the California Judges Association, and, of course, the State Bar, as well as other professional and civic groups. The Commission has worked closely with the Judicial Council in several areas, including obtaining funding for providing legal assistance. The resulting Equal Access Fund was first funded at $10 million by the Legislature in 1999. I and others resisted attempts to eliminate or reduce the fund in bad budget years, and have succeeded in increasing legislative funding to $15 million plus several million dollars additional from filing fees.

The commission also coordinates closely with other groups, including local bar associations, the Public Interest Clearing House, and the American Bar Association, and has produced extensive reports analyzing problems affecting access to justice, and suggesting methods to resolve them.

In short, the bench and the bar in California, with assistance from our sister branches of government, have attacked the goal of improving accessibility for self-represented and unrepresented litigants from several different directions. Even so, the problem remains acute.

In California there are more than 8,000 low-income persons per legal aid lawyer, and we are number 22 on the list of states in the amount of legal aid funding provided for each low-income person. With that concern in mind, I know that the State Bar will continue its leadership role in striving to create programs to make a meaningful dent in these statistics, and the Judicial Council also will continue to proceed vigorously to respond to the needs of all Californians. There are many opportunities for you to engage in this process with us.

Before I move on to congratulate this evening's award winners, I want to mention two ways in which each of you can make a difference without doing more than lifting a credit card or writing a check. First, the Legislature created the Justice Gap Fund to collect voluntary contributions from State Bar members to support legal assistance for low-income individuals.

Additionally, Assembly Bill 1723 is on the Governor's desk for signing. It will expand the kinds of accounts attorneys may use so that their IOLTA funds can generate a higher return. These are amounts that the attorney determines are so small or held for such a brief period that they cannot earn income for their client that would exceed the costs to incur such income and distribute it to the client. The new statute requires banks, in order to hold IOLTA accounts, to offer rates and other services comparable to those offered to other account holders. The last thing I did before leaving San Francisco for this conference was to send a letter to the Governor urging him to sign this bill.

I hope you will look out for more information on this program. This expansion of IOLTA options will not affect your bottom line, but can result in a substantial increase in statewide IOLTA revenues available to support legal services.

And now, let me turn to tonight's awards winners. I have described a number of "institutional" approaches to providing assistance to low-income persons. The people we honor tonight are a reminder that sweeping plans and projects still come down to individual lawyers and firms working with individuals in need. Each of tonight's honorees, on a pro bono basis, offered personal time, expertise, and compassion that truly changed the lives of others.

The first individual that I have the honor of introducing to you is DarAnn Dearing, a government attorney who, for more than nine years, has worked with Santa Clara Valley Legal Aid as a volunteer in Fillmore. What is remarkable is that her volunteer work is in some ways the legal equivalent of a busman's holiday—her full time job for the past two decades has been with Ventura County's child protective services, where she works as a social worker assisting families and children at risk.

Her experience in that capacity has been of great value in her volunteer capacity, because Santa Clara Legal Aid is staffed completely by volunteers. Ms. Dearing's knowledge of the system, available resources, procedures, and programs makes her invaluable to others working there. And her expertise and experience working with people informs her much-needed work in domestic violence, landlord-tenant, and consumer law.

In short, she demonstrates how the insight and experience of a talented government employee can make a difference both within and without the structure of government. She provides an excellent model of how someone with knowledge of the workings of government can utilize that knowledge to assist persons who otherwise might not have resort to the assistance of counsel, and to enhance the services of others in providing help.

Minyard and Morris, LLP, of Newport Beach, is a small law firm, with some 15 attorneys practicing family law. They may be small in number, but they lead in pro bono contributions. In 2006, almost every attorney in the firm, partner and associate, provided pro bono legal services for a Public Law Center client. Among the clients served were victims of domestic violence, most of them Spanish-speaking or Vietnamese-speaking. Over the course of the year, the firm contributed more than 900 hours of time to assist clients in more than 30 cases. Their service went further, however.

Recognizing that the need far outstripped their firm's—or any firm's—ability to address, they worked with Public Law Center to provide family law training for new attorneys and mentored private attorneys to expand the pool of available legal assistance. PLC stated that having an entire firm willing to take on family law matters has been tremendously helpful to its clients—and the firm has set an example for others in the county, at the same time that it extends a helping hand to assist other firms in providing similar services.

The next award recipient is the combined statewide offices of Gibson Dunn and Crutcher. The nominating papers received for this award recipient are from a who's who of six legal services providers from around the state, extolling the pro bono services provided by attorneys from the firm. In 2006, Gibson Dunn & Crutcher's attorneys contributed an astonishing 37,000 plus hours of pro bono services. This represented an 85% increase in time over the year before. I hope that Gibson will share with other firms its secret of success in increasing pro bono contributions by its lawyers.

The hours Gibson attorneys have spent met a wide range of needs. In San Francisco, through the Bar Association of San Francisco's Volunteer Legal Services Program, Gibson attorneys assisted in landlord/tenant matters and issues affecting homeless individuals. It has worked actively in VLSP's Community Organization Representation Project, providing services to community nonprofits. And that barely scratches the surface.

In Los Angeles, working with Public Counsel and the Alliance for Children's Rights, Gibson attorneys have taken a leadership position in the Adoption Saturday program since it began in 1998. I used my authority as Chief Justice to assign myself as a Judge of the Los Angeles Superior Court for a day a few years ago to enable me to participate in an Adoption Saturday, and I shall never forget the joy of helping create a family with children who finally had a permanent home and parents who were providing one.

Working with the same two legal services partners, Gibson filed a class action two years ago seeking relief in the calculation of financial support on behalf of foster children suffering developmental disabilities and of the families caring for them. The dispute centers around regulations that may discourage adoption and permanent placements for these very vulnerable children.

The list of pro bono contributions through the organizations I have mentioned—and through Bet Tzedek and the San Mateo Legal Aid Society—could take the rest of the evening. Clearly, Gibson Dunn has set a high standard for others to emulate.

And finally, Carlo Pedrioli provides an excellent example of what one individual, newly admitted to the bar, can do. He works with California Rural Legal Assistance, and during the first three months of this year alone, he has contributed 240 hours of pro bono service.

He has lent a hand wherever and whenever needed, assisting a senior attorney in preparing cases in which petitions are presented to obtain protective orders on behalf of seniors and disabled adults. Mr. Pedrioli has interviewed and advised many senior citizen clients, undertaken research and writing assignments in areas affecting senior citizens, and contributed to important litigation in areas such as landlord/tenant disputes.

Mr. Pedrioli has been a continuing source of steady pro bono assistance in a smaller county in which the problems often are enormous and the available resources very limited.

Each of the award winners recognized tonight has made pro bono contributions an integral part of the way in which he or she practices law. I believe that if you were to speak to any one of them, they would not describe how many hours they spent, but instead would relate the benefits that they themselves received from the process. Pro bono legal work truly is an area in which the giver is a recipient of priceless rewards.

I congratulate each of you and thank you on behalf of California's judicial system. Your example honors not only each of you and those who work with you, but the profession in which you play such a vital role. Thank you for showing us all what can be done—by any practitioner, in any type of practice—to improve the fair and accessible administration of justice.

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