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Meeting challenges head-on

By Ronald M. George
Chief Justice, California Supreme Court

Ronald M. George
George

This past year has been an especially busy and productive one for the Supreme Court, and the success of the Judicial Council’s ambitious legislative program was greatly aided by the State Bar. In addition, we welcomed Justice Carol Corrigan to our court in January, and she has been a quick study and active participant in the work of the court.

We continue to make progress in reducing the number of appellants in death penalty cases who are awaiting the appointment of counsel. The court still needs additional counsel not only for appeals, but even more so for related habeas corpus proceedings.

The court has been able to grant some raises in the fees paid to appointed counsel in these matters. However, during the last legislative session we were unsuccessful in raising the statutory limit on payment for investigative expenses in these habeas corpus proceedings, but the court will renew its request to change the $25,000 cap to give us more flexibility in setting the reimbursement level in these matters. I strongly urge those of you who are qualified to seek an appointment to a death penalty appeal or habeas corpus case.

Looking ahead to the next 10 years, I am keenly aware that the progress that the judicial branch has made in so many areas has been due to the remarkable dedication of those on California’s bench and in its bar. But the work of improving the administration of justice is far from done. Many challenges lie ahead. Unrepresented litigants, particularly in family law matters, continue to place difficult demands on the courts and we must continue to develop ways to assist these litigants in effectively accessing the court system and vindicating their rights.

Interpreter services continue to be a critical component of access to justice for many Californians. The Judicial Council is committed to continuing to work with the governor and the legislature to expand our programs to train, test, and certify qualified interpreters for the more than 100 languages translated each year in California’s courts. We believe the types of proceedings in which interpreters are provided by the courts should be expanded to include, for example, family law and small claims.

Ultimately what all of this is about is improving access and fairness in our court system. That has been a paramount goal of the Judicial Council for more than a decade — and it will continue to be our goal in the future. We are committed to responding to the appropriate needs of the public, and to providing a strong and independent judicial system.

We need the bar’s close attention in one other respect: to ensure that California’s courts remain objective and independent. If they are not, all these projects and plans will be mere window-dressing.

There are troubling developments on a number of levels that have the potential to undermine the ability of courts to perform their historic and constitutional functions. Increasingly contentious and partisan judicial elections are on the rise.

I spoke recently on this subject at a conference held in Washington, D.C. One of the examples I discussed was the South Dakota initiative measure that will appear on the ballot next month entitled “Judicial Accountability Initiative Law,” with the catchy acronym “Jail4Judges.” Upon a finding of abuse of judicial discretion made by special grand juries, this measure would eliminate judicial immunity for judges, subject them to possible civil and criminal sanctions for decisions rendered in the course of their judicial duties, and render them ineligible for judicial service during their lifetime. (See South Dakota measure puts judges on edge)

I could go on with other examples. For the most part, we have not yet seen this level of inflammatory developments affecting the selection of judicial officers in California — although I should note that the South Dakota initiative originated with a California group that wants to pass the measure in several small states before bringing it here. We cannot assume we are immune, and if we ignore the trends that are testing the limits in other jurisdictions, we do so at our own peril.

In November, the Judicial Council is convening a national conference on judicial elections, and we anticipate it will result in a plan for action in the future. Such a plan will look to the bar to provide collaborative assistance and strong support to keep our courts as free as possible of inappropriate partisan politics and influence and maintain the rule of law as a cornerstone of our democracy.

This column was excerpted from Chief Justice Ronald George’s State of the Judiciary address last month. The full text is on the California Courts Web site.

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