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Former chief justice offers a behind-the-scenes look at his term

Former Chief Justice Ronald M. George’s memoir, “Chief: The Quest for Justice in California,” was published last month by UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies. George is donating the proceeds from the book to the university. Laura Ernde, the editor of the California Bar Journal, sat down with George to ask him about his approach to the oral history project and what lawyers can learn from it. What follows is an edited version of their conversation, including excerpts and photos from the book.

Your successor, Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, wrote a nice introduction for your memoir. What was your reaction when you read that?

Ron George
Representing the State of California at the first of six oral arguments before the U.S.Supreme Court, 1969

I was very pleased for it. What it reinforced for me is the fact that each chief justice at least in modern times built on the accomplishments of his or her predecessors and in turn will contribute to the continuity, but to new developments and improvements. There’s a wonderful tradition in the California judiciary of persons who have worked to improve the system, not just through the opinions that they author, not just through improved procedures at the Supreme Court, but through a real concern with improving the structure of the judicial branch so they can better serve the people of California through various reforms and improvements in access to justice.

Why did you choose to do it in this format, to record an oral history rather than take pen to paper and write your own memoir?

In a sense it really wasn’t my choice, because I was asked to do this before I even thought of retiring and I put it off. I really was on a 24-7 schedule. Once I retired I had no excuse to say no, especially since as chair of the board of the Supreme Court Historical Society, I had been asked by the board to encourage other judges and justices to engage in oral history interviews to preserve the record and history of the courts in California. Laura McCreery, who is the oral history project director for the Institute for Governmental Studies at UC Berkeley, although not a lawyer, is extremely knowledgeable and diligent about obtaining the background required to conduct meaningful oral history interviews. That’s the format that was commissioned by the historical society, so of course I acceded to the existing format. Why didn’t I chose to write my own book? I don’t know whether I would have had the discipline to sit down and write a book from scratch. But this was an extremely enjoyable and I think informative way of obtaining history of my tenure as chief justice and the professional career that preceded my attaining that position. I did have to prepare by going through files that I have, but I did not maintain a diary of any sort. So it really was incredible to me how with this Q&A format all sorts of memories almost in a Proustian fashion came flooding back to me. Things I would not have thought I would recall going back to my oral arguments as a deputy attorney general in the U.S. Supreme Court in the late 1960s and early ’70s, through my career on the municipal, superior and supreme courts. I think there are a lot of things in there that even people who knew me well had not heard before. I found some of the experiences I had on the municipal and superior courts to be quite entertaining, at least to me in retrospect, and hopefully for the general reader as well.

What do you think the lawyers who read this can take away from the things they learn and the stories you tell?

Ron George
A controversial dive into the Kaweah River, Three Rivers, California, 1980s

I think they will attain my perspective on the real-life experiences of a lawyer arguing appellate cases and my own experience as a trial judge. Of course, most trial judges have colorful stories to tell about things that have happened in court. But everyone has his or her own perspective and unique experiences. Also, it’s of interest perhaps how one thing led to another, just through advancements by way of the various opportunities that the legal and judicial professions offer and how well the legal and judicial professions have worked together to improve our mutual efforts. There’s also a certain amount of inside baseball in terms of things that would be of interest primarily to appellate practitioners reflecting the inner workings of the California Supreme Court, the decision-making and case assignment processes and other things as well. Those things in turn may be a bit esoteric to the general reader who’s not trained or exposed to the law. There’s a mix of things of both general and parochial interest to lawyers and judges.

What about young lawyers in particular. What do you think it has to offer them?

I was asked in some of the questions about those qualities that might help make one a successful lawyer and the interviewer delved into the oral argument process and there were some helpful as well as some humorous illustrations of when things go right and when they don’t go right in oral argument. And there will be some practical tips. And as I said before, how one has the opportunity as a young lawyer to advance in the legal profession or by assuming a position on the bench, a lot of those things may hold some interest to people who are in the legal profession.

You mentioned that even people who know you well might be surprised at some of the stories. Is there one that you can think of that a lot of people don’t know?

Ron George
Attorneys in the Hillside Strangler trial (1981–1983) conferring at the bench
with Los Angeles Superior Court Judge George: Roger Boren, Katherine Mader,
Gerald Chaleff, and Michael Nash

It’s hard to say. There’s so many things of that sort. The experience at San Quentin [prison] the day before the shootout [three guards and three inmates were killed in the 1971 riot]. Some aspects of the lengthy Hillside Strangler trial [which he presided over as a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge]. Some things that perhaps went into the decision-making in the [same-sex] marriage cases that faced the California Supreme Court. One of the things I enjoyed recounting in response to Laura McCreery’s questions were some of my dealings with the Legislature and with the various governors with whom I dealt and negotiated. I think some of those are stories that weren’t necessarily of public record.

As you said, you covered a wide range of subjects, from your childhood all the way through the marriage cases. What are the subjects you think that deserve further exploration, maybe in a follow-up book?

Ron George
Working on a Supreme Court opinion in Ketchum, Idaho, winter of 2002

Not by me. Been there, done that [laughs]. I don’t believe I will have another book. I did describe the process as quite pleasurable. I won’t say effortless, because I did not have the questions in advance. I was told, I think appropriately, that if I were to be given the questions in advance that would make the interchange less conversational and less spontaneous. I did know the general areas and subject matters that were going to be discussed. I did find myself going through files, photographs and things to attempt to refresh my recollection over a 45-year professional career. In one respect, maybe it was a bit more difficult than sitting down and writing a book from scratch because although I was given the opportunity to edit the question-and-answer interchanges, once we had moved on, let’s say beyond the municipal court to the superior court, it was made clear to me there was no going back to other things I might then want to discuss my years in the attorney general’s office. So to a certain extent I had to cram for these sessions, feeling a bit like I was back in my student days, knowing that that was basically my shot at getting off whatever I wanted to respond to concerning the period. Whereas with a book, of course, you can be in the last chapter and go back and rewrite the first chapter. The 20 chapters in the book correspond directly to the 20 interview sessions, which totaled 65 hours of tape-recorded conversations. So I’m not planning on writing any more books. I’d rather read other people’s books than write anything more myself.

What are you reading?

Ron George with Governors
With former governors Gray Davis, Jerry Brown, George Deukmejian,
and Pete Wilson, at the induction of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, 2003 (Photo:
Governor’s Office)

All sorts of different things, biography and history and novels and so forth and engaging in travel and spending time with our sons who reside in Southern California and two little granddaughters. And trying to catch up on a lot of things I had to put aside with a certain amount of sacrifice in terms of time spent away from family. Certainly my wife Barbara was very indulgent, but I want to be able to enjoy everything that life has to offer at this point instead of being totally consumed by my position. There were basically three aspects to it. Writing one’s one-seventh share of the opinions, which was my favorite part. Running the California Supreme Court, which I thoroughly enjoyed. And that third part is being head of the judicial branch and constantly being in Sacramento to deal with the fiscal crises of the state and how they impacted the judicial branch and its funding. And that latter part, although in many respects very satisfying given the nature of reforms that were accomplished, was quite draining and never-ending. And every time we managed to get through the severe crisis, whether it was through very forceful advocacy on my part and that of others or just through a turn in the state’s economic fortunes, there it was the next year back again like a new tide coming in. That I’m very relieved to be free of, and I admire greatly my successor for her perseverance and steadfast advocacy and commitment to the interests of the judicial branch and to access to justice.