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Judge Greer Doesn't Sit Quietly on the Bench : Lawyers and Colleagues Say His Political Activism Is Likely to Blaze a Trail

July 24, 1989|ALAN ABRAHAMSON | Times Staff Writer

Traditionally, judges have left the unseemly business of pressure politics to, well, politicians.

Judges do not stump for ballot measures. Judges do not make grand announcements from the bench about the woeful condition of their calendars. Judges do not orchestrate a press conference to push for funds for courts and jails.

Then there's Judge Michael I. Greer.

The presiding judge of the San Diego County Superior Court has done all of those things in recent months. His current campaign, aimed at convincing the city of San Diego to help fund courts and jails, has evolved into a very public spat between Greer and Mayor Maureen O'Connor.

"I'm shocked that a woman can take the responsible position that she's taken and, having that position, want to be a ribbon cutter," Greer said in a recent interview.

Likely to Leave a Mark

Greer's activism is likely to leave a mark on the post of presiding judge in the future, local lawyers and judges say.

"We needed someone to take an aggressive public stance about what a disaster we're facing in the courts," said Assistant Presiding Judge Judith McConnell, in line to be the next presiding judge. "The time for judges to sit back quietly, tending their business without informing the public, is over."

"I think anyone who is the presiding judge of this court is going to be active in keeping the public informed and in working with the public," McConnell said.

"The only way to convince politicians who have some influence is to jump on the political bandwagon and lobby each and every one of them," said Marc Adelman, current president of the San Diego County Bar Assn. "This is going on now with Judge Greer and will be ongoing after his turn."

Before Greer, presiding judges were content to administer the court without going public about problems, said Edward B. Huntington, last year's president of the county Bar.

"His predecessors have been political only within the small arena of the courthouse," Huntington said. "All of them had to have a great deal of skill in lobbying and politicking with their peers. Mickey has gone out to a larger arena, going to the Board (of Supervisors), the sheriff and now the City Council.

"I don't know whether we all have an accurate reading as to whether the venture was wise in regard to the City Council," Huntington said. "But I don't blame him for going out there."

Ethical rules for judges prohibit "political activity inappropriate to . . . judicial office." In essence, the rules bar a judge from partisan politics but allow "measures to improve the law, the legal system or administration of justice."

Last November, Greer appeared with other judges at a press conference shortly before Election Day to urge a yes vote on a local ballot measure to raise the spending limit on county government. The measure would enable the county to use state funds available through a trial-court funding bill.

The news conference was the first ever called to show support for a ballot measure by the entire county bench, Greer said at the event. The measure passed.

In February, Greer announced from the bench that all new civil trials would be postponed because of an overwhelming backlog of criminal cases. Three weeks later, Gov. George Deukmejian named seven San Diego men to the Superior Court bench, and civil trials resumed. Officials from the governor's office maintained that the move was not a response to pleas for help from the county.

Then there is Greer's current quest: help from the city for the county courts and jails. It led to the press conference last Monday in Greer's courtroom at the downtown courthouse--and to the jousting with O'Connor.

"Oh, yeah, right now I'm openly political on this thing," he said, referring to events with O'Connor.

Not Looking to Ascend

San Diego lawyers and judges point out, however, that Greer's politicking is not designed to benefit him personally. He's not out just to keep his job, they say.

Nor, they say, is he pouting for a larger salary, the current favorite lobbying game of many federal judges.

Nor is he looking to ascend to the state appellate bench. "Absolutely not," said his daughter, Keri Katz, 28, a deputy city attorney. "This kind of work, where you make people mad at you, is not what you want to do if you want to get to the appellate court."

Nor, finally, is he in it just because he likes to see his name in print. "I've never heard a hint of any self-aggrandizement," said Justice Richard D. Hoffman of the state's 4th District Court of Appeal downtown and a former member of the San Diego Superior Court.

Greer said his motivation is really very simple. "The goal that's driving me now is I really do worship the law, and I think we're losing it. I think we're losing the system."

Greer is a "passionate believer in our system of jurisprudence and a passionate believer in making it work," said James R. Mills, chairman of the Metropolitan Transit Development Board, which runs the San Diego Trolley.

Talk Turns to Courts

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