Ex-Chief Justice ‘King George’|Answers Questions About Legacy

     BERKELEY (CN) – Former Chief Justice Ronald M. George’s strong-arm approach to running California’s judiciary made him for many a deeply antagonizing figure during his 15-year term. But at a Tuesday book signing for his memoir “Chief: The Quest for Justice in California,” George laughed off accusations that he was a despot who stifled dissent.
     While in California’s top judicial post, George was a principal force behind the centralization of California’s trial courts. Legislation in 1997 gave control of court rules and the roughly $3 billion court budget to California’s Judicial Council, where the chief justice chairs the meetings, votes and appoints 14 of the 21 voting members.
     The legislation also resulted in a huge growth in the personnel and power of the central court bureaucracy, where the chief justice is the staff’s ultimate boss. In his role at the center of that web of power in California’s courts, many trial judges saw a tyrannical figure and gave him the moniker “King George.”
     “I find it amusing,” said the former chief in answer to a question from Courthouse News. “There’s always the question of who is the boss. I take it with good humor.”
     George was answering questions and signing books Tuesday evening at the small library for governmental studies on the UC Berkeley campus, surrounded by shelves of books and reading tables. A space had been cleared for about 40 guests that included the current Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, the administrative office director of operations Curt Child and colleagues, lawyers and family members. Proceeds from the book are being donated to the school.
     Whether or not the nickname was deserved, the former chief justice left a lasting and strong impression in the memories of the many trial court judges who opposed his policies and priorities.
     “He never had enough power,” said retired Los Angeles Judge Charles Horan. “I don’t know of a judge who hasn’t referred to him as King George. That was standard.”
     He pointed to George’s attempt to amend the California Constitution to extend the Judicial Council’s control beyond rules and budgets and encompass broad policy-making power. The effort failed and left in place the constitutional provision that limits the council to making surveys and recommendations while adopting rules for administration, practice and procedure in the courts.
     The idea that the council should set statewide court policy is related to a doctrine of uniformity in public expression by judges, pressed recently by administrators and some members of the judiciary, a doctrine known as “speak with one voice.”
     Taking questions at the book signing, George exposed the historical root of the doctrine.
     “I always felt that it was very important for the judiciary to speak with a unified voice to just be treated as co-equal, independent branch of government,” George said in an answer to a question from Courthouse News. “And there is a surprising amount of ignorance in Sacramento about that basic concept of civics. Because if you go up there with all sorts of different points of view, you’ll just get trampled on.
     “If you go up with the Judicial Council having one position, the California Judges Association having another position, the Los Angeles Superior Court having its own position because it’s the largest court, and perhaps a couple of rural courts getting together to voice their interests, no one is going to recognize you as a co-equal branch of government.
     “So without in any way wanting to stifle dissent,” he added, “I always encouraged the judges to get together, thrash it out and then go up there with one point of view.”
     But many trial judges beg to differ. They say George, who was chief justice from 1996 until 2011, did have the means to suppress other opinions, and wielded them mightily.
     They pointed to his campaign to retain control over council membership, successfully shooting down a move by the longstanding California Judges Association to amend the state constitution so council members would be democratically elected by California judges. George said he would view the CJA’s endorsement of democratic elections as a “declaration of war on the council.”
     “It was like King George talking to the colonists,” Horan said wryly.
     In his book, George said the comment was not off-the-cuff, it was a planned warning. “It was made with considerable forethought, and it accomplished exactly what I intended. CJA’s consideration of that proposal came to a halt.”
     Appellate Justice Tom Hollenhorst remembers what he characterized as a “love-hate relationship” between CJA and the chief. “If he needed a friend, CJA was his best friend. But if it got between what Ron George wanted, CJA would suffer mightily.”
     George defended his opposition to a democratically elected judicial council, in his book. “Selection as a member of the Judicial Council is not, and should not be, a beauty contest or popularity contest,” he wrote.
     “He had no respect for trial court judges even though he had been one,” Horan countered, adding that George’s explanation implied that “the judges were too stupid and venal to elect their own judges. He didn’t believe they had the wherewithal to fairly select members of the council.”
     At Tuesday’s event, George clarified, as he did in his book, that he relinquished the power to unilaterally choose council members and instead created authority in the Judicial Council’s executive committee to submit three names to him for selection. “I gave up my authority to unilaterally appoint members to the council,” George told Courthouse News.
     Hollenhorst, who clashed with George over his policy of making judicial education mandatory, said his “declaration of war” remark was an unusual burst of candor.
     “That’s about the most obvious he ever got,” said Hollenhorst. “It was the most out he ever came in malevolent use of power. What will war bring? The end of your career.”
     Hollenhorst, who taught judicial ethics programs for the CJA and the California Center for Judicial Education and Research for more than 20 years, said George was not one to be up front with his enemies.
     “There’s an old saying that you would much rather fight with someone who would stab you in front than in the back,” said Hollenhorst. “That was the problem with George. He would never stab you in the front, he’d stab you in the back. That’s historically been his style, the hallmark of the way he kept order.
     “No one who wore the mantle of chief justice ever behaved like that,” Hollenhorst added. “There were some strong personalities on the Supreme Court as chief. Malcolm Lucas was no paper tiger. But if he was mad at you, he would tell you and he wouldn’t carry a grudge.
     “I served under four chiefs and without a doubt, Lucas was a towering giant,” Hollenhorst said. “There was no game playing or back stabbing, and he got things done and didn’t need to build an empire to do it.”
     But George was good to his friends, Hollenhorst said, and particularly favored the staff at the Administrative Office of the Courts, the judicial agency he expanded from a small operation with no formal staff to a massive bureaucracy that at one point numbered nearly 1,000 employees.
     In his position on the board of the center for judicial education, he heard from George on the importance of toeing the line drawn by the administrative office staff.
     “He gave me a lecture on how important it was to follow the directions of the staff. I said, ‘What?’ He said, ‘You do exactly what staff tells you to do.’ That was a turning point in my relationship with him,” Hollenhorst said. “I was always neutral until he did that.”
     While George had largely retired from the sometimes rough arena of judicial politics in California, the publication of his new book opened the door to a renewal of criticism that seemed to have faded from public view.
     One of the big legislative engines behind the constitutional amendments and legislation that unified the state courts was former state Senator Larry Stirling.
     “George completely misrepresented the purpose and intent of unification and used his misrepresentations for only one reason, to hijack the state court system,” said Stirling in a statement circulated Tuesday afternoon. “George created a useless burgeoning bureaucracy of overpaid sycophants who never saw the inside of a courtroom.”
     He described George as a “dictator,” adding, in a reference to the San Francisco headquarters for the Administrative Office of the Courts, “George destroyed their court system all in the name of aggrandizing himself and feeding his San Francisco sycophants.”
     At his book signing later on Tuesday afternoon, a reporter read some of Stirling’s comments off a cellphone screen to George. The former justice chuckled and said, “He’s a curmudgeon.”
     Illustrating both the passage of time and George’s penchant for control of the levers of power, a story is often told about the time he interrupted a trial judge making a pitch to the council for more democratic governance in the court system.
     In January 2010, Horan from Los Angeles and David Lampe from Bakersfield, who was then director of the Alliance, traveled to a council meeting in San Francisco with prepared remarks on how the courts were being governed in the face of a looming financial crisis.
     At the time, the judiciary was facing a fiscal crisis with courts closing and staff laid off while the administrators continued to spend hundreds of millions on a quixotic software project. The Alliance was a voice for reform, advocating for financial accountability and trial court independence.
     Horan said the prepared remarks had been pre-approved by the council’s executive committee, as required by council rules. Lampe approached the lectern and began reading.
     “This Council I think has appropriately recognized that it does not govern the trial courts. The trial courts are by law decentralized, and are managed by the trial judges who are responsible to the people of their counties who have elected them,” he read.
     “Yet there is presently no effective structure to insure that the trial courts are being fully heard,” Lampe continued. “Ultimately the Alliance of California Judges stands for accountability. We urge this Council to work with the Alliance of California Judges. We urge you not to fight ghosts of old battles of unification and state funding which are now history. We ask that this Council, with the guidance of the legislature, reaffirm the rights of the trial courts by a Trial Court Bill of Rights that the Legislature asked for in 1997, and which has not -“
     At that point, he was cut off by George.
     “With all due respect Mister Lampe,” George thundered. “I think you were well informed that that is not an agenda item. So, you are free to communicate otherwise your views on these other issues, but your three minutes today are confined to the matters that are the subject of our agenda.”
     Horan remembers George standing up and shaking his finger at Lampe.
     “The point was we had already gotten the statement cleared pursuant to their rules and George either hadn’t seen it and when he heard it, he couldn’t stand it. He couldn’t stand there politely and listen,” Horan said, noting that the statement was “simply a matter of, ‘If we are going to speak with one voice we have to have a more democratic governance.'”
     But like the criticisms that George is able to laugh about now, Horan and Lampe likewise laugh about the time when George would only refer to Lampe as “Mister.”

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