August 17, 2011

Former Chief Justice George gives insights into inner workings of the California Supreme Court

Ronald M. George, who served on the California Supreme Court for almost 20 years, the last 15 as Chief Justice, and who retired in January of this year, has given an extensive interview in the current issue of The Judges’ Journal, a quarterly publication of the ABA’s Judicial Division. The far-ranging interview covers such topics as the former Chief’s long career in public service and his views on court security.

What is of greatest interest to us, however, are the comments George offers into the inner workings of the Court. George calls his colleagues on the Court “six of the most collegial persons I could imagine” and describes the Court during his tenure as “seven true friends.” As a result, even when the Court was required to decide contentious issues, disagreements “were always handled in an agreeable fashion, and I never heard raised voices. . . . [T]hings were always civil, and sometimes there were some strong words used in dissent, but they were never, I think, over the line or impolite.”

No doubt George’s own steady leadership contributed significantly to the collegiality among the justices during his tenure. He describes how he assigned In re Marriage Cases (2008) 43 Cal.4th 757, the politically volatile pre-Prop 8 case regarding the constitutionality of statutes proscribing same-sex marriage, to himself as Chief Justice, “thinking that, as chief, I should have the broad shoulders.” George then wrote his opinion both ways and elicited comments and criticism from other members of the Court. Only after this process was complete did George cast his own tie-breaking vote. Due in no small part to this style of leadership, George is justifiably proud of the Court’s high rate of unanimity during his tenure.

Among other matters covered in the interview, the former Chief also discusses the controversial Court Case Management System (CCMS), which we discussed recently here. Implementation of the over-budget statewide computer system for the courts is on hold due to the recent massive cuts to the judicial branch’s budget. George grants that the system “is not without its problems.” But he emphasizes that, once implemented, CCMS will be an invaluable tool not only for court administration but also for fiscal planning by all branches of state government.

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