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Los Angeles Times Interview : Ronald George : Defending the Role of Judges in 'Three Strikes' and Beyond

July 21, 1996|Molly Selvin | Molly Selvin is an editorial writer for The Times

The aura of serenity that surrounds Chief Justice Ronald M. George is deceptive.

Since he took over the California Supreme Court in May, following the retirement of former Chief Justice Malcolm Lucas, the amiable George has been a whirlwind of activity. The state Judicial Council, which he now chairs, has imposed controversial new limits on the use of cameras in the courtroom and is considering a series of changes in the conduct of jury trials. An aggressive advocate for judges, George hopes to broker a legislative deal that could stabilize funding for the state's beleaguered trial courts. Shortly after he was elevated to chief justice--George joined the Supreme Court in 1991--the justices took the unusual step of voting to revisit their April decision upholding California's 1987 law requiring minors seeking an abortion to get parental consent.

And last month, in a unanimous decision, the court held that the 1994 "three- strikes- and- you're- out" law did not eliminate a judge's discretion to reduce the 25-years-to-life prison term mandated for a convicted third-strike felon. The decision prompted immediate reaction: Judges and defense attorneys generally support the court ruling, while prosecutors and their legislative supporters are pushing a new bill to again restrict judicial discretion. George cannot talk about either the three-strikes decision or the law itself since the court has been asked to rehear the case.

Such activity is hardly out of character for the 56-year-old Los Angeles native. A former deputy attorney general, George first came into the public eye in 1981, while on the Los Angeles Superior Court, as the judge in the Hillside Strangler trial. During the two-year trial, which resulted in conviction of defendant Angelo Buono, George also served as the court's supervising criminal judge and president of the California Judges Assn. He took up running at the beginning of the Hillside Strangler proceedings, after a colleague warned that the stress of such a long trial could cause him health problems.

Married with three grown sons, the soft-spoken jurist is still running--five miles during the workweek and double that on the weekend. George's last marathon was a few years ago, but he still participates in such feats as a relay from Mt. Rainier to the sea. George was interviewed in downtown Los Angeles, in the chambers the chief justice uses when the court sits here.

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Question: Most members of the current California Supreme Court were appointed by Republican "law-and-order" governors. Statewide, the bench is now heavily represented by former prosecutors. Are you surprised then at the continued efforts by the Legislature to limit the discretion of judges?

Answer: It is almost cyclical. . . . Bear in mind that the courts don't reach out for these issues; we get only what people bring to us to resolve. But, periodically, cyclically, the courts have to exercise their function in a way that brings them into direct collision with the other branches and possibly with the public will. When that happens, persons who do not appreciate how judges come to a decision react in ways that perhaps would be more appropriate if they were dealing with the other two branches of government . . . The courts are not representative bodies. Their obligations are to apply the law and serve all the people of the state. It's happened before; it will happen again--at least until such time as there's a better appreciation, all around, of what the judicial function is.

Q: Many other states have laws similar to three strikes. Voters in those states were perhaps motivated by the same frustration that prompted three strikes here: a sense that judges were releasing repeat criminals. How do you respond to voters who say, "I want criminals locked up and you aren't listening?"

A: Again without reference to three strikes in particular, I think most judges view their function as applying the law that is made by the other two branches of government and doing so even when the law is not one the judge particularly favors . . . . On occasion, the voters don't understand that it is not really a question of result--who wins, who loses--but how and why a judge arrived at a particular result. If the law is changed by the Legislature and the executive [branches], then the judge's obligation is to apply the new law unless there is something in the Constitution that precludes that. The role of the judiciary is not very well understood by many members of the public and sometimes not by the other two branches of government, either.

Q: How do you make that understood? Judges generally speak through judicial opinions that rely on the facts of the specific case before them. How do you convince the public of a need for a separation of powers?

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