The chief justice and attorneys

As a participant in a town hall meeting in South Central Los Angeles, Ronald M. George was introduced thus: "It's cool, the chief is in the 'hood." As he described the scene, the chief justice smiled and said it is just this kind of community outreach that will improve the public's perception of the justice system. So will pro bono efforts by both lawyers and judges, good professional behavior, and bench/bar cooperation on a variety of issues.

"If the public has a negative impression of the legal profession and the judiciary," George said, "it comes back to haunt us . . . when they're called upon to express their views to the other branches of government in terms of laws that should be supported or their attitudes as jurors."

George thinks the State Bar can impress upon its members the importance of image and "how the actions of a few sometimes give a wrong impression." And in what is perhaps wishful thinking, he'd like to see more attention given to the good things attorneys do.

George wrote a letter last year to all attorneys, asking them to offer pro bono services to the indigent. Law is a profession, he says, and "the professions owe perhaps more of a duty to the public and the community than those who are strictly involved in a business. Some of the busiest people are still able to find the time and the inclination to engage in these efforts."

He also has sought a parallel effort by members of the bench to engage in community outreach.

George praised the State Bar for supporting state funding of courts and for other joint efforts with judges in the legislature. "When the bench and bar can get together, the significance of what we're doing is magnified," he said. George disagrees with critics of the Judicial Nominees Evaluation Commission (JNE), and does not favor its abolition. JNE performs a useful function, he said, adding that he admires its members' contributions. He suggested there "can be some positive fine-tuning of their procedures to make it a still fairer and a better functioning operation." He declined to comment on specific recommendations of a study group appointed to examine JNE.

He also opposes the idea that the Supreme Court assume the bar's discipline operation because it does not have the resources to do so. "If we were to take over the day-to-day administration of the disciplinary function, it would very much cut into our ability to perform the other functions that are expected of us."

George declined to comment on whether membership in the State Bar should be mandatory for California attorneys. He said the role of the bar could potentially come before the court, presenting legal and constitutional issues. However, he said he thinks "the bar performs a lot of useful functions. I have benefited from a cooperative relationship with the State Bar since becoming chief."