Wilson names George chief justice

Janice Brown tapped as associate justice despite the State Bar's JNE Commission rating of 'not qualified' for the appellate judge

Ronald George, associate justice of the state Supreme Court, was nominated by Gov. Pete Wilson to replace Malcolm Lucas as chief justice. Appellate Judge Janice Rogers Brown was tapped as an associate justice on the state's high court.

George, 56, was Wilson's first Supreme Court appointee in 1991 and is a former prosecutor, trial judge and appellate justice in Los Angeles.

He was involved in the high profile "Hillside Strangler" murder case in 1981 when he refused to dismiss murder charges against the serial killer, despite the objections of former District Attorney John Van de Kamp.

George has made a name for himself on the Supreme Court as a conservative on criminal cases and a champion of individual liberties in civil appeals, but has taken a more centrist approach on issues that include damage suits, privacy and civil rights.

Last year he wrote a decision banning sex discrimination at a private country club that occasionally allowed the public to use its facilities.

Controversial choice

Wilson's appointment of Brown, 46, stirred up controversy when it was revealed that the State Bar's Judicial Nominees Evaluation (JNE) Commission recently rated her as "not qualified" for the position.

Commonly referred to as the "Jenny" Commission, the 27-member body was formed in 1979 to evaluate judicial candidates whose names are submitted by the governor. Previously, evaluations were conducted by the State Bar Board of Governors.

Wilson said his decision to nominate the Sacramento appellate judge was based on his personal experience working with Brown during the four years she acted as his legal affairs secretary.

In addition to personal knowledge of her competence, her judicial philosophy and the endorsement of her judicial colleagues influenced his decision.

"I've worked with Justice Brown day in and day out for four years. I know what's in her heart and in her head," said Wilson.

Sharecropper's daughter

Brown, the daughter of an Alabama sharecropper, is a UCLA law school graduate and was admitted to the State Bar in 1977.

Regarded as a legal conservative, Brown has ruled on behalf of plaintiffs in a number of cases, including a decision that grand jurors may be sued for defamation.

Brown and George must both be confirmed by the Commission on Judicial Appointments. Commission members are the chief justice, Attorney General Dan Lungren and Justice Robert Puglia of the Court of Appeal in Sacramento.

The commission could meet as early as May 1, Lucas' retirement date, to confirm George's appointment. In that case, George would take Lucas' seat on the commission, presiding over the vote to confirm Brown.

Brown was praised in the JNE Commission evaluation for her intelligence and accomplishments, but received a "not qualified" rating because she "has not yet attained sufficient experience to serve as Supreme Court Justice."

Disputed by governor

Wilson took exception to the evaluation, saying that some of the brightest and most talented individuals would be disqualified using that standard.

He pointed out that numerous federal and state justices, including Earl Warren, William O. Douglas, Roger Traynor and Rose Bird, had no judicial experience when they were appointed.

Brown has been on the Court of Appeal for less than two years and has issued half a dozen opinions that have been published as legal precedents.

Secret process

The JNE Commission's evaluation process is secretive. Lawyers, judges and the candidates' references are interviewed but are not identified.

Although Wilson disclosed the commission's findings, the State Bar is prohibited by law from releasing the report.

If confirmed, Brown would be the third African American to sit on the court. She is the first African American woman to be nominated for the seat.

She would join two other women, Joyce Kennard and Kathryn Mickle Werdegar, on the seven-member court.

Appellate Judge Ming W. Chin became Wilson's third appointment to the Supreme Court when his nomination was confirmed in March.

California Supreme Court

Stanley Mosk, 83, appointed by Gov. Pat Brown, August 1964
Joyce Kennard, 54, appointed by Gov. George Deukmejian, March 1989
Marvin Baxter, 56, appointed by Deukmejian, July 1990
Ronald George, 56, appointed by Gov. Pete Wilson, July 1991; elevated to chief justice, March 1996
Kathryn Mickle Werdegar, 59, appointed by Wilson, May 1994
Ming Chin, 53, appointed by Wilson, January 1996
Janice Rogers Brown, 46, appointed by Wilson, March 1996*

*Subject to confirmation by the Commission on Judicial Appointments