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.