September 28, 2010

Chief Justice George’s historical and philosophical speech

After praising his likely successor and being praised by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Kennedy, Chief Justice Ronald George reflected on a 45-year career in public service in his final address to the State Bar on Saturday in Monterey. (Full text here.) In part, it was a self-retrospective of the George Court years and of his tenure leading the California judicial system.

The Chief Justice said he “could not in good conscience leave this post if California’s judiciary remained enmeshed in a severe budget crisis.” Although the judiciary’s financial position is not a rosy one, George reported that “California’s court system now is in a far stronger position to weather the challenges ahead than it was when I became Chief Justice 14 years ago.” George spoke of three “historic reforms” during his tenure: trial court funding, court unification, and the transfer of court facilities to state control.

Although these “historic reforms” garnered the most headlines, the Chief’s concern for access to justice has been a hallmark of his career. Eliminating obstacles for the many unrepresented litigants in California has always been a priority, both as chair of the Judicial Council (e.g., self-help centers) and as a Supreme Court justice (e.g., Elkins v. Superior Court (2007) 41 Cal.4th 1337 and Silverbrand v. County of Los Angeles (2009) 46 Cal.4th 106).

This concern was reflected in the philosophical tone of the Chief Justice’s valedictory remarks. George said his career choices were “guided in large part by the circumstance that the law is a profession – not a business – and that the core obligations and expectations of a lawyer transcend personal interest and – at times – even the interests of one’s clients.” And George quoted former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell: “‘Equal justice under law is not merely a caption on the facade of the Supreme Court building. It is perhaps the most inspiring ideal of our society . . . it is fundamental that justice should be the same, in substance and availability, without regard to . . . status.’” “To me,” George concluded, “justice never has been a matter of privilege and influence.”

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