Chief Justice George
works to reinvigorate
state courts

by Nancy McCarthy
Staff Writer

... Continued from frontpage

[Chief Justice Ronald M. George]

In a wide-ranging interview with the California Bar Journal, a relaxed George discussed four other key areas on which he is focused:

Since his elevation to chief justice in May 1996, George has reinvigorated a court critics say had become lackluster in recent years. He runs the biggest judiciary in the western world with apparently boundless energy, surviving on only a few hours of sleep.

George often does his most crucial work -- writing opinions -- at his dining room table between 9 p.m. and 2 a.m. He has worked hard to repair the court's relationship with the legislature, to improve the public perception of the justice system, and to communicate with judges, lawyers and the public.

He has participated in town hall meetings and makes himself available to reporters, all in an effort to make the courts more accessible. Although he has given up running marathons because he doesn't have time to train, he still manages to jog several times a week. He even received a jury summons and spent a day in the jury room, where his support for changes in the system was fortified.

George's top priority as chief justice has been to secure permanent, long-term state funding for California's nearly 1,600 courts. The state currently pays about 35 percent of trial costs, and the counties pick up the rest. That's "no way to run a judicial system," George says.

State funding was derailed in the last legislative session by a last-minute political wrangle between Gov. Pete Wilson and Sen. Bill Lockyer over meet-and-confer requirements for court employees. Even George's lobbying via cell phone while hiking in the Sierra failed to resolve the dispute.

Since then, George has worked tirelessly to persuade individual legislators and the governor "of the absolute necessity for state funding." When he addressed the legislature in January, he warned that courts in 51 counties would face a financial crisis by the spring. He appealed to bar groups, community leaders, editorial writers and county governments and won widespread support for his position.

George even crafted a solution to the collective bargaining dispute, and court employee groups testified for the funding measure in Sacramento.

Lockyer unveiled a new plan to provide $450 million in additional state funds for the courts, and George expressed support for it, but the governor quickly pronounced it too expensive, saying it was "dead on arrival."

Because Wilson indicated he would veto the measure, the bill was held up in the Assembly in the hope that some renegotiation would make it more palatable to the governor.

This time around, trial court funding was the victim of a budget cut when the state lost a lawsuit and was ordered to write a $1.3 billion check owed to the state Public Employees Retirement System.

Court funding accounts for only 1.5 percent of the total state budget. Years ago, the state committed to providing 70 percent of court money, and that amount has been whittled down to between 30 and 35 percent today. "We're just asking the state to honor the commitment it made some time ago," George said.

The diversity of those needs was clearly illustrated during George's year of visits. For example, because 120 languages are translated in California courts every day, some counties' biggest problem is finding qualified interpreters. Some need improved technology and others have serious deficiencies in security. In San Luis Obispo, for instance, George said one judge had to pile books under the bench to serve as a buffer. "It's crucial for some of those day-to-day needs that we have some sort of assistance from the state," he said.

George believes adequate court funding, as well as being essential to keep courtroom doors open, is at the core of judicial independence. "If courts are on the threshold of closing their doors, and if they are subject to retaliation in terms of funding because of decisions they make, then we really are sacrificing judicial independence," he says.

George also is searching for solutions to a wide variety of other judicial problems, ranging from insufficient numbers of jurors to unrepresented parties in court to a dearth of attorneys for death row inmates.

He believes citizens would be more willing to serve on juries if the system did not impose on their time so severely. He encourages judges to handle motions and their calendars in a way that does not require jurors to "cool their heels in the hall." He also favors a one case-one day process, raising compensation to $40 per day, adequate pay for meals and parking, free transportation, and tax credits for employers who pay the salaries of employees who serve on jury duty. George recently created a committee to attempt to write instructions in more understandable language as well.

"I think the whole system has to think in terms of being more user-friendly," he said.

The notion of convenience and access also spills over to the burgeoning problem of unrepresented litigants, particularly in the area of family law. George said in 60 percent of divorce and custody cases, one side or the other has no lawyer. In 30 percent, neither party is represented. Because the courts cannot provide counsel for all the parties, the system must become more accessible and understandable for the public, he said.

He is impressed with electronic kiosks, now used in Ventura County, which simplify divorce proceedings. Litigants press a button on a computer, the form is printed out, and then can be filled out in a nearby room. Child care is available and a low-cost panel of attorneys can assist.

It is the sort of innovation George says the courts need to implement. "We won't be able to continue to pour more resources, whether it's money or judgeships or courthouses, in direct proportion to the increase in population," he says. "We're going to have to be more innovative and engage in more efficiencies to make the system more user-friendly."

That includes approval of the court coordination measure (SCA 4) on the June 1998 ballot, which George believes offers an opportunity for greater efficiencies. In light of diminishing resources, he said, "it's obvious to me that funding, judgeships and the assignment of judges are all allocations that will have to take into account whether the particular court . . . is maximizing its ability to deal with its caseload with existing resources."

Another key issue is the delay in capital appeals for death row inmates. The fact that 156 inmates on death row currently do not have a lawyer, and therefore nothing is happening on appeal, is "a terrible blight on our system," George says.

The court is trying to attract defense counsel through increased hourly compensation or a fixed fee, and has produced a nuts-and-bolts video which explains what is expected of appellate counsel. New legislation makes trial judges and trial attorneys responsible for preparing and certifying the record quickly.

But George believes the private bar cannot be expected to shoulder the entire burden. He supports pending legislation to expand the state public defender's office and a companion bill to create a separate office of post-conviction counsel to handle habeas claims.