Three years ago, in the midst of controversy and court closures, then Chief Justice Ronald George unexpectedly resigned his post, explaining that he could leave because the branch was in fine financial shape. After three years of silence, he has now surfaced with a new book, as referenced in the attached Daily Journal article.
One would have thought that a former Chief Justice would not make such bitter and childish comments about 500 of his former colleagues. Obviously, retirement has not increased his capacity for introspection.
Alliance of California Judges
Former head of state's judiciary tells all in new memoir
Memoir sheds light on former chief justice's nearly 40-year career as a judge
By Emily Green
Former California Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald M. George settled some old scores and detailed his storied career, from writing the decision that paved the way for same-sex marriage to consolidating the state's trial courts, in an expansive memoir published Wednesday.
A compilation of George's interviews with the California Supreme Court Historical Society, the book confirms some long suspected rumors, including his strained relationship with former California Supreme Court Justice Janice Rogers Brown and his belief that the death penalty is broken beyond repair and should be abolished.
Referred to by his critics as "King George" for the strong-armed way in which he ran the judiciary, George in his memoir dismissed criticism that he squashed dissent and rejected responsibility for the mismanagement of a maligned computer project that the judiciary ultimately abandoned.
The book, which runs more than 800 pages, contains something for everyone, from George's take on an array of state legislators (some of whom he criticizes without naming, although readers can infer who they are without much effort) to his views on the U.S. Supreme Court's jurisprudence.
George's account of his own ascent to chief justice contains surprises. Frustrated that Gov. Jerry Brown had not elevated him to the superior court despite his having spent several years on the municipal court, George formed a campaign committee to run for a seat. He said he met with Brown's appointments secretary - J. Anthony Kline, now a 1st District Court of Appeal justice - and told Kline that if Brown didn't appoint him, he would challenge a sitting judge. Within weeks, Brown appointed George to the Los Angeles County Superior Court.
In later years, George went out of his way to impose restrictions on judicial elections because of their politicizing effect on the branch. A committee he established set strict limits on how much money judges could receive in campaign contributions before they are automatically disqualified from a case. But George declined to disavow elections altogether, telling the Daily Journal in an interview that they may be justified when a sitting judge "lacks the legal ability or moral character" for his or her post.
In reading the book, one realizes just how long and expansive George's career was. As a young lawyer in the state attorney general's office, he argued six cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, including the initial lead case on the constitutionality of the death penalty - he argued that it was constitutional - as well as 11 cases before the California Supreme Court. He was just 32 when Gov. Ronald Reagan appointed him to the Los Angeles County Municipal Court in 1972.
George was elevated to the 2nd District Court of Appeal in 1987 by Gov. George Deukmejian, and to the Supreme Court in 1991 by Gov. Pete Wilson. In 1996, Wilson named him chief justice.
During his 14 years as chief justice, George masterfully engineered reforms that transformed the judiciary from a collection of splintered local trial courts into a bona fide statewide branch of government. The state assumed responsibility for funding the trial courts and consolidated the 220 municipal and superior courts into a single superior court for each county. The judicial branch also took ownership of the 553 courthouses from the counties.
In recounting such history, George expounded on the challenges he faced. He criticized "elitist" judges for opposing the unification of the municipal and superior courts, as well as the Los Angeles County Superior Court for secretly lobbying against consolidation efforts.
"Much of this opposition was engineered by that court's highly manipulative court executive officer" - John A. Clarke - "who in my view did not serve the best interests of the court's judges or employees," George told the California Historical Society's Laura McCreery, who conducted the interviews. Resistance also came from judges who had a "parochial view of their reign" and "feel their discretion should be without limits," he said.
"This is classic Ron George," Clarke, who is now retired, said by phone Tuesday. "His greatest shortcoming is his fear of legitimate public debate and open policy discussions. He frequently resorted to attacking anyone who dared to express a different viewpoint."
George in the book brushed off many of the criticisms levied at him and the branch after he retired in 2011 - that he quashed dissent and alternate voices; that the Administrative Office of the Courts had become bloated and too powerful; and that he punished judges who spoke out against him by stymieing their chances for elevation to the appellate courts.
Noting that he was once criticized for comparing the Alliance of California Judges - a group of outspoken critics of the judiciary - to ants, he said, "Frankly, I think I was being rather charitable in making a comparison to creatures that occupy a much higher rank in the insect hierarchy than I might have referenced. I laughed at the fantasies, conspiracy theories, and frequent references by these complainers to me as King George ..."
Thomas E. Hollenhorst, the 4th District Court of Appeal justice who is a founder of the Alliance, said, "He has his view. Our positions are based on years of mounting criticism around the state that was ignored but turned out to be true."
George also rejected responsibility for the doomed computer project to link court dockets statewide, known as the Court Case Management System. After investing $500 million and many years of effort into its development, the judiciary abandoned the project amid deep budget cuts to the courts and criticism by the state auditor that it had been grossly mismanaged and would cost more than $1 billion to implement.
"I feel that CCMS should have been better managed and that was the responsibility of the administrative director of the courts and his staff," George said in a recent interview with the Daily Journal. "I do not in retrospect fault myself for any difficulties that took place with CCMS."
If George comes across as imperial at times, an image of him as a risk-taker and prankster also shines through. As a college student at Princeton University, he pretended to be a member of the media and managed to join the press pool following John F. Kennedy's presidential campaign. After following the candidate to several events in multiple states, he left only because midterms were coming up.
As a judge, he played elaborate practical jokes on his colleagues. While on the 2nd District Court of Appeal, Justice Jack Goertzen repeatedly asked George to bring him back a wild king salmon from his fishing trip in Alaska. Eager to find humor in the situation, George caught a 26-pound salmon and had the head chopped off and frozen. When George returned to the court after vacation, he took the head and dropped it into Goertzen's toilet bowl for him to find on his morning trip to the loo.
As chief justice, George was known for authoring opinions in many of the court's highest profile cases. In his book he delves into those decisions, including his famous 2008 ruling allowing same-sex marriage in the state. The 4-3 ruling found that denying gay and lesbian couples the right to marry violated the California Constitution. While its effect was blunted by the passage of Proposition 8 six months later, which reinstated the ban, it was an important milestone in the ultimately successful fight for same-sex marriage.
George also recounts his writing process for that decision: He took the unusual step of drafting two tentative opinions reflecting opposite outcomes. The other justices on the court were split down the middle, leaving him as the swing vote. He was ultimately swayed by the notion "that underlying all of this was a very basic human right, the constitutional right to marry, and then to affix different labels to it denoted a second-class citizenship, very much akin to letting certain persons ride on the bus but making them sit in the back, in the context of racial segregation."
In addition to his decision in that case, George said the opinions he is most proud of are Warfield v. Peninsula Golf & Country Club, which held that private country clubs that do business with nonmembers cannot discriminate against women; NBC Subsidiary v. Superior Court, establishing the right to open proceedings in civil cases; and Elkins v. Superior Court, which invalidated local court rules that prohibited direct testimony and restricted other evidence in marital dissolution trials.
While George got along well with most of his colleagues on the Supreme Court, one relationship stood out for its difficulty: that with Justice Janice Rogers Brown.
George paved the way for Brown's confirmation to the court after the Judicial Nominees Evaluation Commission found her "not qualified." But after her confirmation, the relationship between her and the other judges on the court disintegrated almost immediately, George said. She refused to accommodate the viewpoints of the other justices in her opinions or tone down her rhetoric, even after a personal plea by Justice Stanley Mosk. Following her appointment to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, Brown's departing words to her colleagues on the state Supreme Court were, "I guess this is my last conference, so I won't be seeing any of you anymore," according to George. Brown declined to comment Tuesday on his characterization of their relationship.
George also used his tome to criticize the U.S. Supreme Court's jurisprudence in First Amendment law and its 2010 opinion in Citizens United, which permits unlimited campaign spending by corporations and labor unions. He said the decision opens the "floodgates to corporate donations with the resulting impact on the public's exercise of its right to vote."
"In addition to one's fascination as a judge with the resolution of complex legal and judicial issues," George said in an interview with the Daily Journal, "the effect on people's lives is always something that is and should be considered by a court."
Daily Journal staff writer John Roemer contributed to this report.