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A legacy of collegiality and efficient administration

By Gerald F. Uelmen

Gerald F. Uelmen

Ronald M. George began his first term as California’s chief justice by visiting the municipal and superior court judges in all 58 California counties. He will end his tenure as chief justice in charge of managing all 533 courthouses in a unified court system, fully funded by the state rather than individual counties. The momentous reforms in California’s trial courts, along with his continuing efforts to make courts more visible and accessible to the public, will be his principal legacy. As an administrator, George will be ranked among California’s greatest chief justices, right up there with Phil Gibson.

The chief justice wears two hats, though. Not only is he chief administrator of the entire judicial branch, he also presides over the Supreme Court, with six colleagues who are independently elected. George led the court from a moderate, centrist position and frequently cast the deciding vote when the court split 4-3. Splits became less common under his leadership, however. During the year ending June 30, 81 of the court’s 96 opinions were unanimous. When George began his tenure in 1996, the rate of dissent among the justices ranged from 10 to 25 percent. As he leaves, we see the lowest overall dissent rate in history: 3 percent. The rate of depublication of Court of Appeal opinions also has declined dramatically. George’s leadership style has produced a very collegial court.

Chief Justice George authored many of the court’s most controversial decisions during his reign, including In Re Marriage Cases, 43 Cal.4th 757 (2008), upholding the right of gay couples to marry, and Strauss v. Horton, 46 Cal.4th 364 (2009), upholding the initiative which amended the California constitution to eliminate that right. His majority opinion in Marriage Cases was a masterful work of judicial craftsmanship that defined an independent course for the equal protection clause of the California constitution that will survive Proposition 8. Other notable rulings authored by Chief Justice George include the 1997 decision striking down the parental notification requirement for juvenile abortions [American Academy of Pediatrics v. Lungren, 16 Cal. 4th 307], as well as the 1999 decisions upholding an injunction against racial epithets in the workplace [Aguilar v. Avis Rent-a-car, 21 Cal.4th 121] and striking down an initiative measure to enlist the Supreme Court in reapportionment of the legislature [Senate v. Jones, 21 Cal.4th 1142]. George frequently voiced concern with the frequent use of the initiative process in California, and the challenges the court faced in interpreting poorly drafted measures.

His service as Chief Justice was not without its failures and frustrations, however. Efforts to implement systemwide data storage and retrieval have thus far been a very expensive failure. Throughout his tenure, George voiced his frustration with the failure of the governor and legislature to adequately fund the administration of California’s death penalty law, which he labeled “dysfunctional.” The George Court decided 279 death penalty cases, upholding the sentence in 251 of them, or 90 percent. Despite this effort, the death penalty backlog continued to grow, with 703 inmates now on California’s death row. The federal courts are currently reversing the death judgments upheld by the California Supreme Court at a rate of 62 percent.

In announcing his departure, George said he wanted to leave “at the top of his game, while the proverbial music is still playing.” As always, his political instincts and sense of timing were impeccable. He is leaving at the top of his game, and leaving a pair of hats that will be challenging to fill.

• Gerald F. Uelmen is a professor at the Santa Clara University School of Law.