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Chief Justice George steps down

By Nancy McCarthy
Staff Writer

Chief Justice Ronald George
Chief Justice Ronald M. George
transformed California's
legal landscape

Ronald M. George reshaped California’s legal landscape through sweeping changes he brought to the state’s courts during his 14 years as chief justice, becoming the most influential figure in the judicial system. His announcement last month that he will step down at the end of the year sent shockwaves through California’s legal community.

Gov. Schwarzenegger moved quickly to replace George, naming appellate Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye as his choice for the next chief justice. She will have a confirmation hearing before the three-person Commission on Judicial Performance Aug. 25.

George’s decision, made at a family weekend in Lake Tahoe, left the naming of a replacement in the hands of a termed-out governor and puts Cantil-Sakauye on the November general election ballot. For his part, George said his family had asked when he turned 70 in March what more he hoped to accomplish “other than refining and preserving what has been achieved. Reflection convinced me now is the right time — while I am at the top of my game — to leave while the proverbial music still plays.” He stunned his colleagues at the court, some of whom were in tears when he delivered the news.

George has served on the California bench for 38 years — joining the Los Angeles Municipal Court in 1972, the Superior Court in 1977, the Court of Appeal in 1987 and the Supreme Court in 1991. Gov. Pete Wilson named George chief justice in 1996. He was appointed to various positions on the bench by four governors, worked as chief justice with eight Assembly speakers and is close to Schwarzenegger. When he retires, he will be the third longest-serving chief justice among the 27 who have held the job.

A moderate Republican, George led the court from the center and often cast the deciding vote in 4-3 decisions. In later years, however, the court produced more unanimous decisions; in the year ended in June, 81 of their 96 opinions were unanimous, a record that underlines the bench’s collegiality. George is generally viewed as conservative on criminal issues such as the death penalty and moderate to liberal on social issues.

George likely will be best remembered for writing a pair of rulings on same-sex marriage. In 2008, he voted with the 4-3 majority to overturn as unconstitutional California’s ban on same-sex marriage. When the state’s voters removed that right less than six months later by passing Proposition 8, a constitutional amendment, George wrote the 6-1 decision that upheld the initiative.

Although he would not discuss those rulings or the initial 2004 case in which the court found that San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom did not have the power to decide which laws to obey, George said he views the three cases as “a giant form of civics lesson for the public.” The Newsom case illustrated the limitations on executive power. The second, In re Marriage Cases, which addressed existing statutes, showed the limitations on legislative power, and the third demonstrated the limits to judicial power because the courts were bound to uphold the people’s will. “Viewed together, I think they are an interesting continuum of three cases that illustrate the respective limitations of the abilities of the executive, legislative and judicial branches,” George said.

Other key decisions included a 1997 ruling that struck down a state law requiring minors to obtain parental consent for an abortion; Aguilar v. Avis Rent-a-Car, banned racial slurs in the workplace despite 1st Amendment free speech protections; and Loder v. Glendale, which permits drug tests for city employees up for promotion. As a Los Angeles trial judge in 1981, he rejected the district attorney’s decision to drop charges against accused Hillside Strangler Angelo Buono, reassigning the prosecution to the attorney general. He has said he’s particularly proud of two opinions: 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.

George also has spoken and written about California’s initiative process. Pointing out that Proposition 8 was enacted on the same ballot that amended the Constitution to restrict confinement of barnyard fowl in coops, he famously said in a speech in Boston last year that “chickens gained valuable rights in California on the same day that gay men and lesbians lost them.” But he was more cautious in an interview last month: “I’ve given it more and more thought and I believe the initiative process is a useful and important means by which the popular will can be expressed. Having said that, the way it is set up in California is probably more extreme than any of the other two dozen states where it exists.”

It boils down to money, George believes. “Virtually any measure can qualify if you want to spend enough to get it on the ballot and if you want to get it passed, it has a very good chance if you spend enough money,” he said. On the other hand, “a lot of good measures die on the vine because (backers) can’t muster the necessary financial resources.”

Beyond the hundreds of decisions George has written over the years, he is considered a masterful administrator, a part of his job he describes as daunting. The chief justice presides over a judicial system that is believed to be the largest in the world, with more than 1,700 judges, 300 to 400 judicial officers, 21,000 court employees and a $4 billion budget. His workload tripled when he became chief justice and although he noted that the same job in other states comes with reduced judicial responsibilities, “I would never shirk my responsibilities in terms of putting effort into writing opinions.” Besides, he said, that’s the part of his job he likes best.

He vowed early in his tenure to visit all 58 California counties, and he tried to make courthouses safer and more modern; in 2008, the legislature approved a $5 billion courthouse construction project. He championed a shift in funding and governance of the state’s 533 courthouses from the counties to the state and he oversaw the merger of 220 municipal and superior court districts into 58 county superior courts. He sought funding for more judgeships, led initiatives promoting jury reform, including greater pay and simplified instructions, improved foster care and greater access to the courts by people who can’t afford a lawyer. And he spent endless hours in Sacramento, lobbying Schwarzenegger and the legislature as the state’s financial condition declined. He and others were able recently to win restoration of $200 million of the court’s funding that had earlier been eliminated.

But his tenure was not without controversy. The Judicial Council’s decision last year to close the courts for one day a month because of financial issues met opposition among many judges, particularly members of the Alliance of California Judges, who oppose the council’s autonomy and are unhappy with the increase in the number of AOC employees. Some Los Angeles County judges, who call the chief justice “King George,” complain power is too centralized in the AOC and believe it does not take into account local and jurisdictional needs. Some lower court judges also criticize George for the $1 billion-plus case management system that hasn’t worked in some counties, particularly Sacramento.

George insisted that his critics played no role in his decision, and to quit because of some unhappy constituents would be like “canceling a trip to Yosemite because there are ants on the trail.”

He has often described his frustration with the death penalty, calling it “basically dysfunctional.” Everyone involved should know within five years if a judgment is valid and the penalty will be carried out, he said. “If not, reverse it and send it back for a new trial.

“Any time these cases go on for two decades, the system is not working right. It’s not right for the victims’ families, it’s not right for the perception of the courts.” Repeating an earlier observation that the leading cause of death on Death Row is old age, George said, “That’s not a hallmark we can be proud of.”

In recent years, George said the demands of the job have become more time-consuming, leaving him with virtually no time to enjoy life. The floor of his chambers is littered with endless stacks of paper and getting through them is “an effort worthy of Sisyphus,” he said. “I’m not temperamentally capable of pulling back. I have to do the job full bore.”

He was not prepared to leave earlier this year, when the California budget was in crisis mode. But with the recent restoration of some court funding, George said, “I felt I could in good conscience leave my post.”

He has a new Kindle that will alleviate his frustration at finding only five minutes to read when he goes to bed. He looks forward to traveling without bringing along work. He wants to spend time with two young grandchildren. He says he has no plans to take another job. “Seventy years of age is not an age too old for a person to occupy the office I hold,” he said. “At the same time, it is young enough to enable me to pursue the richness of a life outside the law that I relish having before me.”