As an undergraduate at Princeton University, Ronald M. George used to startle his roommates with a peculiar habit during thunderstorms: He would stick his head out of a top-floor window and shout defiantly in the pounding rain lines from "King Lear": "Blow, wind, and crack your cheeks!"
Nearly 40 years later, that shouting student is California's chief justice, presiding over a Supreme Court that for the first time in two decades is becoming unpredictable. Whether he is tweaking the court's staid image with practical jokes (he once put a bug-eyed salmon in a fellow judge's commode) or taking on the role of court lightning rod by writing its most controversial opinions, George has never lost his penchant for sticking his neck out.
Appointed chief justice last year after five years on the high court, George assigned himself the unenviable task of writing an explosive abortion ruling, even though he knew it all but guaranteed a campaign to yank him off the bench.
He was right. No sooner had he led a 4-3 vote in August to strike down the law requiring parental consent for teenage abortions than abortion opponents cranked up efforts to overturn the ruling and oust him.
They have a formidable foe in George, who has spent the last year roaming the state seeking to build a constituency for the court system he now heads.
Although past chief justices traditionally have been remote robed figures, George has embarked on a series of road trips to make the court--like himself--approachable.
His pace has been stupefying. With a well-worn map and a yellow marker in his pocket, George has kept his promise to visit each of California's 58 counties and their courts.
Hopping small planes or cruising in his state-issued Ford Taurus, the lanky chief justice poked his head in courthouse after courthouse. He was often appalled by what he saw.
He met a San Luis Obispo County judge who, fearing for his safety, improvised a bulletproof shield from stacked lawbooks because there was no money for security. He found another judge in Plumas County working in a broom closet converted to chambers. Earlier this year he hastily arranged to cut a check to keep an Alpine County court from closing its doors.
George also has fielded calls on a South-Central Los Angeles radio station, addressed a gay lawyers group and pleaded for lawyers to donate time to the poor. He reported for jury duty, visited tribal courts and haunted the hallways of the Legislature in Sacramento.
"Instead of having the court seen as an aloof institution, which is much easier to demonize, [people] realize it is open to give and take," said George, a moderate appointed by Gov. Pete Wilson.
Moving the Court Toward the Center
George's openness to such give and take may explain the court's recent shift to the center politically. During the 1970s and '80s, under then-Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird, the court often ruled in ways that pleased political liberals.
Chief Justice Malcolm Lucas, George's predecessor, swung the court in the opposite direction, delivering predictable victories to business and jump-starting enforcement of the death penalty.
But with George at the helm, the court is creeping from the right toward the middle. The court has continued to uphold death penalty convictions, but when it comes to civil disputes, George is as likely to rule for workers as for big business and side with victims in sex and age discrimination cases.
He has been the swing vote in many recent decisions, voting sometimes with the three most conservative justices, other times with the trio of justices who range from liberal to moderately conservative.
The court's shift has annoyed some conservatives, who had counted the 57-year-old former prosecutor as one of their own. And those who applaud the court's move toward the center still have reservations about whether George will live up to what they see as his shining debut.
"I sometimes wonder if there is a bit too much PR and a bit too little substance," said Steven Barnett, a UC Berkeley law professor. Others question whether George has established too broad an agenda. Even friends worry that he may be spreading himself too thin.
"There can come a point where you have grabbed too much, where the risks you are taking are too great," said McGeorge School of Law professor J. Clark Kelso. "If you start to reach too far in a leadership position, that can be a fault.
"I don't see that happening yet, but there is no question that he is way out in front on a lot of issues that are contentious and where it is not at all clear where the end result is going to be. . . . At which point does Ron George's energy outstrip the rest of us?"
George's drive comes in part from a strong sense of self-confidence, a belief that he can accomplish what others cannot. This has irked some judges, who have derided him for being excessively ambitious.