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An obligation to ensure the rule of law

By Ronald M. George
Chief Justice, California Supreme Court

Justice Ronald M. George
Chief Justice Ronald M. George accepts the State Bar’s Bernard E. Witkin Medal from former President John Van de Kamp.

During the past decade, the judicial branch has undergone dramatic structural changes, including the shift from county to state funding of the trial courts, the unification of 220 municipal and superior courts into 58 courts — one in each county, with a single level of trial court — and the first stages of the shift of ownership and management responsibility for California’s 451 courthouse facilities from the counties to the state. All these changes have been encouraged and embraced as part of the judicial branch’s focus on creating a strong judicial branch that is better equipped to ensure that it can administer fair and objective justice for all.

By creating a stronger infrastructure for the judicial branch, stabilizing its funding system, taking more responsibility for fashioning its future, and standing accountable for our decisions in these areas, we are building a strong platform for the judiciary to successfully maintain its effort to uphold the rule of law. The task is far from done. The role of courts in our tripartite form of government has been a subject of intense focus of late. Our judicial branch is designed to play a very different role from that of the representative branches of government, the legislature and the executive.

Courts are — and should be — expected to decide cases as determined by law and precedent, not by poll results or popular preference. At the national level, there have been various attempts to sway judicial decision-making, from the introduction of bills to strip courts of jurisdiction, to calls for removal from office of the authors of judicial opinions reaching results which some find objectionable. In California, misunderstanding about how courts decide cases — and the basis upon which those decisions should be made — is common. Those who disagree with decisions at times criticize the results in terms of political considerations, rather than on the basis of legal analysis.

It is incumbent on all of us involved in the administration of justice to ensure that the judicial branch remains able to maintain its proper role as an objective forum for the resolution of legal disputes. Whether as judges or lawyers, or simply as members of the public, we all have a vital interest in preserving this fundamental principle of governance — and we all have an obligation to expend our efforts to do so.

One area under exploration is amending the judicial article of the California Constitution, Article VI. Legislators interested in the operation of the judicial branch and in preserving an accessible and independent judiciary suggested studying potential amendments to advance these goals.

Staff developed a set of draft proposals that, among other changes, would ensure stable base funding, provide a mechanism for the creation of necessary new judicial positions, create an independent commission to review and adjust judicial pay, expressly incorporate the Supreme Court’s authority over the State Bar into constitutional language modeled on cases describing this authority, and mandate the Judicial Council to establish policies to promote access and the administration of justice.

Two measures already pending in the legislature would affect basic operations. The first is a judgeships bill, SB 56 by Sen. Joe Dunn, who has been a great friend to the judiciary, along with his colleague from across the aisle, Sen. Dick Acker-man. This measure would create critically needed new judicial positions. Since 1980, the total number of judges in the trial courts has grown by approximately 20 percent — but the total population in California grew by more than 50 percent in this period. The need is particularly acute in the Central Valley and Inland Empire, where the population has more than doubled in some areas.

Having too few judicial officers affects justice across the board. It delays civil cases, creates pressure to plea bargain in criminal cases, discourages the business community from using the public court system, causes difficulties and delay in family law matters and generally places the court system in a struggle to meet reasonable public needs. The bill has passed the Senate but has not yet passed the Assembly. A study conducted by the National Center for State Courts for the Judicial Council has documented the need for approximately 355 more judges statewide, but we are seeking only 150 new judgeships — 50 in each of the next three fiscal years — to add to the existing 1,630 judgeships. Every year’s delay means the courts fall further behind.

Sen. Martha Escutia’s bill, SB 395, on the court facilities bond also is pending. It will provide additional funding to implement the transition from county to state ownership and management responsibility for California’s 451 court facilities. We must have courthouses that are safe, secure and up to the task of providing appropriate services. Too many facilities are deficient under earthquake standards, have inadequate technological capabilities, do not provide security for judges, court employees, jurors, litigants and lawyers, and simply cannot meet the demands for space and services. The people of California deserve courthouses that meet their needs. This measure will help make that a reality.

There also have been some achievements this year worth noting. This legislative session has seen the adoption of a bill that allows for the establishment of a statewide uniform enhanced civil assessment program. This ties in with our efforts to encourage more uniformity across the state where appropriate.

Another major milestone was the recent adoption and issuance by the Judicial Council of comprehensive new jury instructions for criminal cases. Also moving through the legislature is a bill we are supporting, SB 874, to require employers of 100 or more persons to pay their employees their salary for the first five days of jury duty if the employer chooses to enter into a contract for goods or services with any state agency.

The problem of unrepresented litigants remains acute. The cost of counsel is a barrier to going to court for far too many Californians. Unassisted self-representation often results in frustration, anger and distrust of the system.

Each of you can make a difference. By committing to pro bono services, you can make a very concrete difference in the lives of families and individuals. You can use your skills in countless ways possible, and thus be a part of making our justice system stronger. I can assure you that the rewards that you will personally reap will far outweigh your expenditure of time and effort.

The judicial branch is engaged in improving far more than traditional courtroom activities. We understand that administering justice requires our branch to meet the reasonable needs of the public we serve, and that includes reaching out to encourage greater understanding and trust of our system of justice. Justice is important to everyone — not just the litigants before the bench. If public confidence in our society’s ability to render justice falters, our society is weakened.

This is a time of turmoil and unrest worldwide but, then, when is that not the case? America has long touted its system of justice and its dedication to freedom. Our obligation is to ensure that the rule of law prevails and that our judicial system remains strong and independent, deserving of public trust and confidence, and always keenly attuned to our place in the balance of powers and the democratic form of government that we are so fortunate to enjoy.

This column is excerpted from Chief Justice Ronald George’s State of the Judiciary address in September.

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