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Ethics Byte

Former chief justice’s book packs surprising plot twists

By Diane Karpman

Diane KarpmanThe last time we discussed an action-adventure, page-turner book was 2006 when we talked about the “The Lincoln Lawyer.” The book was stuffed with ethics issues, and we knew the protagonist was merely a heartbeat away from a State Bar investigation. So we read it with a vicarious sigh of relief.

There is a new book, “Chief: The Quest for Justice in California” by retired Chief Justice Ronald M. George, that is an exciting page-turner. It is suspenseful and engrossing. I was fascinated by the anecdotal stories in this personal history.

As a child, he was a rascal. Rather than practice the piano, he and a friend cut a record (no tapes existed then) of him practicing. Each night when his parents went for a walk after dinner, he paid his sister to play the record so their housekeeper could report to his parents that he had practiced, but he didn’t seem to be improving.

He was a real prankster. In 1960, when he decided to attend the Nixon-Kennedy debate while attending Princeton, he thought he could just go in, only to be informed that he needed a press credential because seating was restricted. Rather than give up, he obtained a press pass from the Kennedy headquarters by claiming he was with the Yale Daily News. Remember, he was attending Princeton. Surprisingly, he got on the press bus and enjoyed it so much that he boarded the press plane and hung out with the press corps for three days, visiting St. Louis, Wichita and Kansas City. He only disengaged because he was running out of money and had midterms. (A story about this escapade appeared in The Washington Post at the time.)

George’s life has a “Forrest Gump” quality. You may recall that Gump was involved in just about any big story during his life, playing pingpong with the Chinese, meeting President Kennedy. That’s our chief. As a young deputy attorney general, George argued six U.S. Supreme Court cases and 11 California Supreme Court cases, including the death penalty for Sirhan Sirhan. The evolution of George’s views on capital punishment alone is worth reading the book.

In preparation for those arguments, he spent several days at San Quentin. He wanted to familiarize himself with the files and be well-informed regarding the actual conditions for the 101 inmates facing the death penalty. He worked quickly and didn’t need to return on the next Saturday, which was the day of the famous 1971 riots that resulted in the deaths of six people.

In the 1970s, there were riots all over the state, often by college students demonstrating against the Vietnam War. George was assigned to investigate the Isla Vista riots after a national guardsman’s rifle discharged, killing student Kevin Moran. George used forensic and ballistics techniques that seemed like something out of “CSI,” which would not air for another 30 years. The shooting was eventually deemed an accident.

This wasn’t the only time he relied on exotic forensics. He used it to prosecute the underground newspaper The Free Press, which published a list of 80 narcotic enforcement agents (names, home addresses and phone numbers), truly putting them and their families in jeopardy. George convinced opposing counsel to turn over the original list. Using a new technique, he identified and prosecuted all who touched it. The gist of the case was the crime of removing an official government document without permission. This case occurred at the same time as the nation was obsessed with Daniel Ellsberg’s controversial release of the Pentagon Papers. The California Supreme Court reversed the Free Press convictions based on “insufficient evidence,” although the chief believes that the court dodged First Amendment issues presented in the parallel Pentagon Papers case.

These are but a few tidbits from the book. You must also remember that the chief presided over what many considered the trial of the century, the Hillside Strangler case (tried by an all-star lineup spanning two years and two days). But for the chief’s aggressive denial of the district attorney’s motion to dismiss, Angelo Buono would have escaped prosecution. Eventually, he was convicted of nine out of 10 counts of murder. He was prosecuted by the Attorney General’s office, because the district attorney’s office was disqualified.

The chief also wrote the opinion in the In Re Marriage Cases. He felt that his broad shoulders could handle the onslaught of controversy that would occur when California ruled that same-sex marriages were within the equal protection doctrine of the state constitution. That led to Proposition 8, the voter ban on same-sex marriage which was ultimately invalidated by the federal courts. Nobody would have predicted society could change so quickly on this civil rights issue.

There’s no need for a spoiler alert, because the book is chockablock full of fascinating details that lawyers are rarely exposed to. It is a behind-the-scenes, play-by- play analysis. The chief told me that doing this oral history was as close to being in psychoanalysis as he ever wanted to be.

This is a kind and compassionate man, who throughout his life demonstrates a keen awareness of humanity. One example is his ruling that a marriage need not be limited to a man and a woman. The decision was firmly based on a 1948 decision by California Chief Justice Roger Traynor, Perez v. Sharp (striking down a ban on interracial marriage). It was not until 1967 that the U.S. Supreme Court struck down anti-miscegenation laws.

When asked about his direct or indirect connections to many of the major issues of his day, the chief explains, “It’s a question of maximizing the opportunities that come one’s way.” “Chief” should be a motion picture. It’s that exciting.

Legal ethics expert Diane Karpman can be contacted at 310-887-3900 or at