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A decade as chief justice

Staff Writer

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Ten years after taking the oath as California's chief justice, Ronald M. George can take credit for raising the profile of the judicial branch, stabilizing court funding and undertaking a wide range of reforms that have either revitalized the state's court system or taken aim at some of its problems. Court observers say the soft-spoken and politically astute chief justice also has mended fences with lawmakers, who were angered when the court upheld term limits in 1991, and he places a premium on maintaining good relations with court stakeholders, whether the plaintiff's and civil defense bars or public defenders.

George, who reached the 10-year milestone May 1, believes his efforts have paid off by making the judiciary equal to the executive and legislative branches of government. "It is my view that we are achieving judicial independence and equality, in fact and in operation, as opposed to just in theory and in name," he said.

The chief justice's job is Herculean in nature, divided between serving as the chief administrative officer of what is probably the largest judiciary in the world and acting as its head judge. The jobs are equally important, George said, although they tripled his workload when he was sworn in. He sometimes wonders, he joked, whether he should have gone to business school as well as law school.

On the CEO side, George's achievements "will rank him with the greatest chief justices we've had in California," said Gerald Uelmen, a professor at the University of Santa Clara Law School who closely follows the court. "I think he's restored a level of respect with the other branches that has been very fruitful."

Agreed another court observer, McGeorge Law School professor Clark Kelso. "He has created a very strong branch of government, clearly co-equal, that didn't exist before. I think he's unmatched as a leader of the branch and the Judicial Council," said Kelso.

George cites three key structural reforms that have strengthened the courts in the last decade: state funding for trial courts; consolidation of 220 municipal and superior courts into 58 trial courts, one in each county; and transferring the ownership and management responsibilities for the courts from the counties to the state.

The biggest coup, he said, was the switch from county to state funding, a change that eliminated budget inequities as well as funding uncertainties. As a result of the switch, the courts' budget now is tied to the state appropriation limit, a formula that permits the courts to base their budget on the previous year's amount rather than starting from scratch annually. In addition, at the same time the budget is sent to the governor, it is submitted directly to the legislature and does not have to be vetted and revised by the executive branch first. This direct contact with the legislature, George says, "is a reflection of our status as a co-equal branch of government."

In addition to those changes, George led what became an eight-year effort to rewrite all of Califor-nia's jury instructions, both civil and criminal, as well as jury reforms that include improved compensation and a one day-one trial requirement that is now law.

And he made access to justice issues a priority, raising awareness of the need for interpreters in civil courts, the problems of unrepresented litigants, particularly in family law cases, and overseeing the creation of self-help centers at courthouses and a Web site that receives more than a million hits a year from people looking for guidance on how to navigate the justice system.

Indeed, George says people without lawyers pose the greatest challenge to the courts today. "We have more and more individuals who are unable to afford counsel and who are forced to represent themselves and forego the meaningful access they would have if they had counsel," he said. "It's both the obligation of the legal profession to engage in pro bono work to the extent that is possible and also the obligation of the court system to provide self-help centers, to simplify forms and procedures, to give assistance without engaging in the practice of law."

The legal side

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Both Uelmen and Kelso describe the George court as centrist and moderate, one that has not broken a lot of ground in terms of jurisprudence and one that reflects Californi-ans' thinking in many ways. "In many respects, it reflects a lot of the moderate centrist tendencies of the California electorate," Kelso said. "Tough on crime, progressive on a lot of social issues, a strong sense of individual autonomy and privacy, a good environment for business and consumer protection.

"It's not an ideologically consistent court, but a much more nuanced and flexible court."

George leaves such assessments to others and said the court doesn't think in terms of trends, but takes a case-by-case approach. He acknowledged the justices focus on what "the ramifications will be in providing guidance to lower courts, to the legal profession and to the public."

The Supreme Court receives some 9,000 petitions annually and issues between 100 and 120 opinions. According to a Westlaw search, the California court issued 1,183 written opinions during George's tenure as chief justice; he dissented in only 17. Kelso said the court "is not leading the country in the development of lots of court doctrine" but it is producing opinions that are scholarly, widely respected and read nationally. And George said his colleagues don't always line up predictably: "You see some very interesting and unexpected alliances on occasion."

Asked which opinions he is most proud of, George cited two. The first, Warfield v. Peninsula Golf and Country Club, extended application of the Unruh Civil Rights Act to a woman denied membership in a golf club because of her gender, and became a precedent for many other extensions of the civil rights act. The second, NBC Affiliates v. Superior Court, clarified the constitutional right to open court proceedings and led to Judicial Council rules that devised procedures that presume that court documents are open.

Although he said he assigns controversial cases evenly, George often assigns to himself cases that address relationships among the three governmental branches. Mindful that the primary responsibility of the court is to decide the merits of a case, the ever-diplomatic chief justice said he's sensitive about doing so in a way that doesn't cause problems among the branches. "The ultimate way the decision is phrased and written can be as important as the bottom line conclusion of who prevailed, and I view a major part of my responsibilities as head of the judicial branch as working to promote good relationships among the three branches of government, as well as between the courts and the bar."

Tough in the face of threats of a contested retention election from pro-lifers at his 1996 confirmation hearing, he also assigned to himself an abortion case. The move, he said, was meant to show the courts would not be intimidated.

At the same time George celebrates his decade as chief justice, he hit another milestone: more than half of his life — 34 years — has been spent on the bench, as an appointee of four governors, Reagan, Brown, Deukmejian and Wilson.

George's parents were immigrants, his mother from Hungary and his father, who died last year at the age of 101, from France. They taught him, he said, the importance of fairness and integrity, but even more importantly, "they constantly impressed on me how special the rights and liberties are to our system of government and our legal system. That's something I believe guides me to this day."

He majored in political science at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs with a goal of working in foreign affairs at the State Department. But he grew disillusioned during a hitchhiking trip through west Africa after his sophomore year in college and opted for law school, both as a way to keep his options open and to postpone a career decision. He enrolled at Stanford Law School, where his love for constitutional law reinforced an idea of combining an interest in government work with his newly acquired legal skills.

George joined the attorney general's office in Los Angeles and by the time he was appointed to the municipal bench there at 32, he had argued six cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and a dozen before the California high court. His appearances provided a good understanding of "what it's like to be on the other side," George said, adding that he tries to be courteous and at the same time cause the lawyers who appear before the court "to test their arguments by responding to probing questions." His 15 years as a trial judge gave him a good understanding of the practical ramifications of appellate decisions, as well, and he keeps those in mind when considering cases.

George's spacious San Francisco chambers overlooking San Francis-co's domed City Hall and Civic Center Plaza are lined with bookcases crammed with law books. In one corner is a cluttered conference table surrounded by seven leather chairs, one for each justice. Dozens of awards and commendations are on display, either on tables or sharing the walls with paintings of California scenes. Family photos of his wife and three sons are scattered about; many record vacations, usually involving some kind of strenuous outdoor activity. In one picture, a smiling George stands before a mountain range wearing a t-shirt that reads, "Take the law into your own hands . . . Hug a judge."

More photos of George, with the four governors who appointed him to the bench, as well as with Govs. Gray Davis and Arnold Schwarzenegger, hang in his outer office, where two assistants help get him through the day. He also has eight clerks, some of whom have worked for him for 20 years.

Now 66, George runs four to six miles three times a week and despite a grueling schedule, sleeps only five or six hours a night. He treasures uninterrupted time late at night or on a plane or in a car, and often writes opinions at his dining room table. He tries to keep his life in balance by reading for pleasure, most recently The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson, with Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals next up. He also takes an exotic vacation every year or so and recently returned from a hiking trip in New Zealand. His reading often inspires his trips; a trip down the Missouri River was undertaken after he read Undaunted Courage, Stephen Ambrose's account of the Lewis and Clark expedition, and he traveled to Antarctica after reading about Sir Ernest Shackleton's harrowing attempt to reach the South Pole in 1914.

Playing hard

George "is somebody who understands the need to play hard" as well as work hard, says Beth Jay, his principal attorney. "He doesn't need much sleep, which allows him to work more than anybody else would think humanly possible."

Jay said the court staff has tremendous admiration and respect for their boss, whom she describes as honest, straightforward, genial and approachable. "He's a very real person, a very, very nice person, remarkably down to earth, who is genuine in his dealings with everybody," she said.

As George enters a new decade of leadership, creating new judgeships and improving the condition of the state's courthouses are high on his list of priorities. A bill now working its way through the legislature, SB 56, would provide 150 new judgeships, 50 in each of the next three years, that would go part way toward meeting what the National Center for State Courts concluded is a need for 355 more judges to handle California's caseload. The bill, now in the Assembly, also would permit the conversion, over 10 years, of 161 commissioner positions into full-fledged judicial positions when the commissioner jobs become vacant.

The dilapidated state of courthouses, whether seismically unsafe, too small or deficient in terms of security, is a long-range concern and George's goal is to correct the deficiencies by 2017. As part of a five-year capital outlay project, master plans are in place for all 58 counties. George said the ultimate cost of providing safe and secure facilities, through 2017, is estimated at $9.8 billion. He has asked Gov. Schwarzeneg-ger to include the courts in his proposed omnibus infrastructure bond measure, expected to go to the voters in November. Courthouses, he told the governor, "are just as much a part of our infrastructure as the state's highways and bridges."

Asked if his crushing workload and seemingly endless challenges ever lead to thoughts of retirement, George smiled and said no, adding that he's not tempted by private judging or any other employment. "I hope to be able to continue this work as long as I'm able physically and mentally to do so," he said. "I can assure you, no greener pastures beckon."

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