California Ensuring That California's Court System Remains Strong And Independent

Sunday, January 1, 2006 - 01:00

The Editor interviews The Honorable Ronald M. George, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of California and Past President of the Conference of Chief Justices of the 50 states and territories.

Editor: How has the structure of California's court system changed in recent years? How have the structural changes helped companies and other parties seeking redress in California's courts?

George: During the last few years, several major reforms of California's judicial system have been undertaken at the initiative of our judiciary. In 1997, California enacted legislation that transferred from the counties to the state the responsibility for funding the trial courts. This structural change has delivered on its promise of providing more stable and secure resources for the courts statewide.

In 1998, the voters approved a constitutional amendment that led to the unification of 220 municipal and superior courts into 58 trial courts, one in each county. This consolidation has proved to be instrumental in providing local courts with the flexibility to employ all resources, judicial and administrative, in the most effective and efficient manner.

The new funding system and other operational and administrative improvements have enabled the judiciary to focus on statewide solutions, equal access, and long-term needs and planning, together with accountability and responsible administration. As a result, the court system has been able to weather the state's fiscal storms better than would have been possible under the previous system.

These changes also have enabled us to engage in a multitude of measures designed to expand access to justice, from jury reform to the establishment of drug and domestic violence courts. Of particular interest to corporate counsel are the establishment of complex litigation courts in several large counties, providing specialized handling of business and mass tort cases, and the ongoing effort to extend uniform statewide rules of court into additional areas of practice.

Editor: Are there any differences between California's complex litigation courts and those in other states?

George: The complex litigation courts in California handle more varied dockets. The business courts in New York and the chancery courts in Delaware specialize in business cases. Like other states' specialized courts, the complex litigation courts in California adjudicate securities, antitrust and other business litigation. In addition, the dockets of these California courts include a broader range of the public's disputes, such as environmental, toxic tort, class action, and construction defect cases.

Editor: What has contributed to the success of the California courts' management of complex litigation?

George: While considering whether to adopt specialized courts for handling complex litigation, the judiciary adopted rules to enhance efficiency in complex case management by requiring uniformity in litigators' practices. In addition, the courts handling such litigation have expanded staff and specialized training for their judges. Technical resources also have been augmented to help ensure that the required tools are available for effective judicial administration of complex litigation.

Editor: Please give an example or two of the next generation of changes under consideration that would help the court system continue to provide essential services and equal access to justice.

George: One area under exploration is amending the judicial article of the California Constitution, Article VI. Among other changes, this proposal would place in the Constitution provisions intended to ensure stable base funding, provide a mechanism for the creation of necessary new judicial positions, create an independent commission to review and adjust judicial pay, expressly incorporate the Supreme Court's authority over the State Bar into constitutional language modeled on judicial opinions describing this authority, and mandate the Judicial Council to establish policies to promote access and the fair administration of justice. It also requires the Chief Justice to deliver an annual State of the Judiciary address to the Legislature - something I have done since 1996.

Editor: Violent and tragic events involving judges, court employees, lawyers, witnesses and litigants have made front page news. What can be done to alleviate the physical vulnerability of the state's courthouses?

George: The Court Facilities Act of 2002 put in place a multi-year process for transferring the ownership of California's 451 courthouse facilities from the counties to the state under judicial branch management, financed by filing fees and court-generated revenue. To complete the process, we anticipate submitting a statewide bond measure to the voters to provide for courthouse construction, modification, and maintenance.

In addition, the judiciary has been working in strong partnership with the Sheriffs' Offices to improve court security.

Editor: Since 1980, the total number of judges in the trial courts has grown by approximately 20 percent - but the total population in California grew by more than 50 percent in this period and by much more in some areas of the state. How is California addressing the existing shortage of judicial positions?

George: Senators Dunn and Ackerman have introduced Senate Bill 56 to create critically needed new judicial positions. Although a National Center for State Courts study shows that the addition of more than 350 judicial positions would be justified, we anticipate that the bill will focus on the 150 most needed positions, adding 50 positions in each of three successive years. Furthermore, some of the subordinate judicial officer positions would be converted to judgeships.

Editor: Why would you encourage corporate counsel to contribute pro bono services?

George: Many individuals who otherwise would be without legal assistance gain meaningful access to justice through the provision of pro bono services in family law matters and in dealing with immigration issues, handling eviction suits, obtaining medical or other social services, and addressing a myriad of problems that otherwise would remain unresolved.

The problem of unrepresented litigants remains acute. As shown by a recent survey, the cost of counsel is a barrier to going to court for far too many Californians. Unassisted self-representation often results in frustration, anger, and distrust of the system on the part of litigants, and may hinder a court in the efficient resolution of its caseload.

Corporate counsel can have a major impact. By committing to pro bono services, you can make a very concrete difference in the lives of families and individuals. You can use your skills in countless ways, and thus participate in efforts to strengthen our justice system. And, I can assure you that the rewards you personally reap will far outweigh your expenditure of time and effort.

Editor: Thank you, your Honor, for sharing with our readers a few highlights from your State of the Judiciary address delivered this past March. Where can they learn more?

George: The California judiciary provides many resources for the public on our website, and my full State of the Judiciary address can be read at www.courtinfo.ca.gov/reference/soj031505.