Top Supreme Court adviser will receive
the Witkin Medal
By Diane Curtis
Beth Jay, principal attorney to Chief Justice Ronald George and a respected legal administrator and policy adviser, has been named recipient of the State Bar’s 2010 Bernard E. Witkin Medal, which recognizes “those legal giants among us who have altered the landscape of California jurisprudence.”
“In her work at the California Supreme Court, Beth Jay has contributed on the highest level of scholarship and judgment to the California courts and legal profession,” said State Bar President Howard Miller. “Often, the people who have the critical role she has are not recognized. Beth Jay well deserves to be.”
The Witkin Medal, which will be presented to Jay at the State Bar Annual Meeting on Sept. 25 in Monterey, was created in 1993 and named after its first recipient, the preeminent legal scholar and writer. It is conferred on people who, “through a career of extraordinary service, have made significant contributions to the quality of justice and legal scholarship in our state.”
“I’m extraordinarily honored,” Jay said, “particularly given the wonderful and talented people who have received it before.” Other recipients have included George, Justice Stanley Mosk, former Attorney General and State Bar President John Van de Kamp and Judge Thelton Henderson.
“Beth Jay has been tireless in promoting public confidence in the legal profession and the courts,” said Santa Clara University School of Law Professor Gerald Uelmen. “Her professionalism sets a standard to which we should all aspire.”
As principal attorney to the chief justice, a post she has held under George since 1996, Jay has served as liaison to the Administrative Office of the Courts, the State Bar, the State Bar Court and the Commission on Judicial Performance, among others. She works on granted cases pending before the high court, chairs various internal committees reviewing court policies, rules and practices and confers with staff and justices on a wide range of issues. She has drafted speeches for the chief justice and served as the court’s representative on several Supreme Court, State Bar and Judicial Council advisory committees, studying such issues as multijurisdictional practice, accreditation of online law schools, professionalism and attorney discipline and admissions.
George said Jay has been of great assistance to him. “In her role as principal attorney to the chief justice, Beth Jay has provided me with insightful and invaluable counsel on a wide range of critically important legal and administrative issues during the past 14 years, and has served as my liaison to the State Bar,” George said. “I am very pleased that she is receiving this well-deserved recognition.”
Jay says she has a “passion about access to justice and I have a passion about people having an opportunity to be heard when they have a claim or a dispute. This has been a major thing for the chief justice and it’s been a major thing for me.” She works closely with the defense bar and other groups to make sure prisoners on Death Row have good representation. “I’m a huge believer in the fundamental importance of a judicial system that truly renders justice fairly — an impartial system, a system that’s not dependent on political forces.”
She said California has been luckier than other states where the independence of the judiciary has been challenged by contested seats defined by political parties. California, on the other hand, generally has nonpartisan judicial elections. “The appellate and Supreme Court retention election has generally been beneficial,” she said. Her work on judicial ethics over the years, including serving on the Commission on Impartial Courts and helping form a code of judicial ethics, “is something that advances a strong and independent judicial branch,” she added.
Before working for George, Jay worked as supervising attorney for then-Chief Justice Malcolm Lucas, and she was a research attorney for both Lucas and Frank Richardson when they were justices. A graduate of Vassar College and Stanford Law School, she worked for two general practice law firms in San Mateo County before working first as central staff attorney at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit and then moving to the Supreme Court.
U.S. District Judge Andrew Guilford, chair of the Witkin selection committee, has worked with Jay on a number of panels, including the Commission on Multijurisdictional Practice (MJP), where he was impressed with her insights on how MJP rules might affect the legal profession. “She’s very bright, she has a great résumé,” he said. “She does a great deal of good and important work” and lets the spotlight shine on others. “For many years, she has contributed without expectation of reward,” Guilford said, noting that members of the committee “thought it would be good to recognize someone who selflessly serves.”