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California Chief Justice Ronald George leaves historic legacy

Faced with the self-assigned task of writing the California Supreme Court’s first ruling on gay marriage, Chief Justice Ronald M. George drafted an opinion in early 2008 with two different endings. One gave same-sex couples the right to marry. The other didn’t. Then he asked the six associate justices for reaction.


FOR THE RECORD:
Ronald George: An article in the Dec. 30 Section A about retiring Chief Justice Ronald M. George of the California Supreme Court incorrectly referred to the “late” Sargent Shriver. Shriver, the father-in-law of former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, is alive. —


George soon learned that his colleagues were split 3 to 3. His vote would decide the most burning civil rights question of the day.

George’s handling of the marriage case was emblematic of his tenure as California’s 27th chief justice. He was a centrist, the tie-breaker on the state high court, but also willing to put his reputation on the line and do the unpredictable.

When he steps down on midnight, Jan. 2, after four decades as a pivotal player in California law, George will leave behind a court system that is vastly different from the one he inherited. Law professors and others expect him to have an enduring legacy.

“He was the most extraordinary leader of the Supreme Court in modern history,” said Treasurer Bill Lockyer, a Democrat and former legislator and attorney general.

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George, 70, took big risks as head of the California judiciary, consolidating courts and bringing them under his authority to turn the judicial branch into a single, independent force. He created self-help services for people who could not afford lawyers. He insisted that courts have interpreters for the non-English speaking. He wrote a 1996 abortion ruling that triggered a campaign to unseat him.

But the moderate Republican jurist was legally cautious, disinclined to take the law to new places. He was what one law professor called “a tinkerer.” The mostly Republican, relatively conservative court he headed is widely considered one of the most influential state Supreme Courts in the country, but was not known for innovative legal thinking.

As a jurist George moved the court closer to the middle and stressed compromise. The dissent rate under George plummeted. His rulings were sound but rarely soared, scholars said.

“He brought a lot of brainpower and political savvy to the position of chief justice,” said Golden Gate Law School professor Peter Keane.

Immigrant parents

George grew up in Beverly Hills, the son of a Hungarian immigrant mother and French immigrant father. He was groomed for foreign affairs, but eventually decided international diplomacy was not for him. Law school at Stanford University was a fall-back position. He wasn’t sure what he wanted to do with his life.

He chose to practice law in government, eschewing the vastly higher pay of the private sector. He became a deputy attorney general, arguing before the U.S. Supreme Court, a trial judge in Los Angeles County, an appeals court judge and finally an associate justice of the California Supreme Court. Former Gov. Pete Wilson elevated him to chief justice in 1996.

Shortly after being elevated, the new chief justice went on the road, a state map and a yellow marker in his back pocket. He inspected the courts in all 58 counties and discovered that some were teetering.

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He met a judge whose chambers was a converted broom closet. He found jurors sharing an entrance with manacled prisoners. He once had to cut a quick check to keep a courthouse from closing.

Armed with his findings, he lobbied for and won state approval of a vast restructuring of the judiciary. More than 200 municipal and superior courts were merged into a single trial court system, and 532 courthouses went from county to judicial-branch ownership.

George said justice should be equal from county to county. He wanted uniform policies and practices, and he figured the judiciary would have more clout in Sacramento if it spoke with one voice.

Legal analysts consider the consolidation of the courts a historic achievement. George has received national recognition and awards for his work.

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“It is a much more efficient system,” said Santa Clara University law professor Gerald Uelmen, an analyst of California courts. “I think he will rank up there … as one of the most effective administrators the court has ever had.”

George’s critics, however, saw a power grab. The Administrative Office of the Courts, which now runs the court system, rapidly grew. Some trial judges resented the loss of independence and derided the ballooning bureaucracy as wasteful. They dubbed him “King George.”

A group of dissenters formed the Alliance of California Judges. The membership is confidential, but the directors claim that more than 200 of the state’s 1,700 judges belong.

Their aim is to restore more autonomy to the trial courts. They were particularly incensed when George decided to close courts one day a month for almost a year rather than make other cuts.

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Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Charles Horan, one of the founding members of the group, complained that George pursued a failed model of judicial administration that “demanded centralized decision-making by an insular minority of loyalists, actively squelched dissent and greatly and unacceptably diminished the role of the trial courts and trial judges in the management of the affairs of the judiciary.”

George said such complaints were inevitable. When some judges critical of the consolidation suggested the powerful, policy-making Judicial Council be filled with elected judges, rather than those selected by the chief, George declared that would be “a declaration of war.”

“We really have created a judicial branch — not just in name or theory — but in reality,” George said. “When I first went to Sacramento, I was asked which agency I was with and who I reported to. I said, ‘You don’t get it. We are a separate, co-equal branch of government.’ They all get that now.”

When George stunned even his colleagues by announcing his retirement on July 14, he had in mind a successor who would keep intact the statewide system he had built. He recommended Sacramento Court of Appeal Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, saying she had the administrative and diplomatic skills and a “backbone of steel” needed to deal with dissenting judges and a cash-strapped state.

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Cantil-Sakauye, who is Filipina, will be the first non-white to serve as chief justice. George said he planned to spend his retirement traveling with his wife of 44 years, Barbara, spending time with their three adult sons and two granddaughters, and rereading the “great books.” He does not intend to practice law.

Priced out of system

Soon after he was named chief justice, George discovered that the middle class as well as the poor had been priced out of the legal system. People with no legal education were appearing in court alone on such vital matters as child custody, guardianship, elder abuse, domestic violence and housing disputes.

George wanted the state to provide such litigants with legal aid lawyers, but the budget crisis forced him to settle for a temporary, pilot project, which starts in January. Even then, he had to resort to political wiles — George described himself as “shameless” — to get the governor’s approval.

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He told Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger the law would be named the Sargent Shriver Civil Counsel Law after Schwarzenegger’s late father-in-law.

Under George’s prodding, jury duty and jury instructions were revamped. He reported to jury duty four times as chief justice and changed the requirement for duty to one day or one trial a year.

Relations between the statewide judiciary and the Legislature, frayed when George became chief, warmed.

His predecessor, Malcolm M. Lucas, had infuriated legislators with a ruling that upheld term limits. Lockyer, who was then a legislator, said many of his colleagues thought Lucas “went out of his way to add gratuitous insult to the commentary.”

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“So Ron George had to clean up after the elephant,” Lockyer said. “He restored relationships partly because he worked so hard and partly because he may be the most diplomatic human being I have met…. When I would try to provoke him, I couldn’t.”

George took command of cases that involved the Legislature or the governor, and when the court ruled against the other branches, he couched the losses in language designed not to give offense.

“Incredibly effective,” is how state Senate leader Darrell Steinberg described George. “He is not a partisan, and he doesn’t go out of his way to poke you in the eye. He is a pretty darn good country politician.”

George spent long hours in Sacramento seeking legislative approval for court bills. One legislator said she decided to vote his way because she was embarrassed to see the chief justice hanging in the hallway with the lobbyists.

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George created a commission to promote judicial independence. The effort to oust him for writing an opinion that overturned a parental-consent abortion law “sensitized him to the political vulnerability of judges,” Uelmen said.

George’s rulings favored a strong 1st Amendment and protection from discrimination for women and minorities, Uelmen said. He was considered conservative on most law-and-order issues, although two of his three final rulings were for the defense.

When he took over, the court was viewed as anti-plaintiff, with business expected to win over consumers. The court is no longer so predictable.

But George was not viewed as a legal trailblazer.

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“Maybe that is incompatible with being the centrist that he is,” said UC Irvine Law School Dean Erwin Chemerinsky. “At a time when our society and legal system is deeply divided, he was such a non-divisive figure.”

Some scholars were dismayed by George’s rulings on ballot measures. George has called for a reining in of the initiative process, which he views as increasingly controlled by moneyed special interests. But as a jurist he was more deferential.

“There are all sorts of laws I might personally view as foolish that I am bound to uphold,” he said. And then, tellingly, he added: “The court can’t be viewed as flouting the people’s will.”

Conservatives say that is what he did in the court’s May 15, 2008, gay marriage ruling. He had met with each justice individually and wrestled with Perez v. Sharp, a 1948 California Supreme Court ruling that overturned a ban on interracial marriage and declared marriage a fundamental right.

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“No matter which way we went,” George said, “we had to cope with this law on the books.”

After weeks of mulling the law and its effect on racial discrimination, George broke the tie. His decision not only gave gays the right to marry — which voters took away six months later with Proposition 8 — but also bestowed the same legal protection from discrimination the law had long given race and gender. No other state high court had afforded sexual orientation such constitutional status.

With his signature at the end of a 121-page ruling, the self-effacing jurist reputed for court administration left his most enduring stamp on the law and California history.

maura.dolan@latimes.com


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