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California and the West

State's Chief Justice Says He Will Fight Back

Judiciary: Ronald M. George has hired political advisors and started raising funds to counter effort of antiabortion activists, who hope to unseat him in November.

March 06, 1998|JENIFER WARREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — Warning that "single-issue politics" is a threat to an independent judiciary, the chief justice of California said Thursday that he will do "whatever it takes" to beat a campaign by antiabortion forces to unseat him.

Chief Justice Ronald M. George, who will be up for confirmation by the state's voters in November, said he has hired a team of political consultants and will not "sit back passively" awaiting his fate.

"I intend to raise whatever amount of money is necessary to meet whatever challenge is raised," George said in remarks after a speech to the Sacramento Press Club on the state of the judiciary.

Although he has yet to launch a formal fund-raising effort, the chief justice said he sent letters to friends two weeks ago and has already received nearly $160,000, a response that left him "astonished" and "very gratified."

George, 57, and Justice Ming W. Chin, 55, are targets of the first organized campaign against state Supreme Court justices since 1986. That year, California voters booted Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird and Justices Cruz Reynoso and Joseph Grodin after opponents accused them of failing to enforce the death penalty.

This year, abortion is the issue. Last summer, George was the author of a decision striking down a state law that required girls under 18 to obtain parental permission for abortions. George, a Republican and a conservative on legal issues, concluded that the 1987 law violated privacy rights guaranteed by the state Constitution.

The decision reversed an earlier ruling by the court in favor of the never-enforced law and infuriated antiabortion activists, who immediately began a push to unseat George and Chin, who voted with him. Two other justices--Stanley Mosk and Janice Rogers Brown--also are up for confirmation but are not targeted because they voted in favor of giving parents a say.

George, a former prosecutor appointed to the Supreme Court by Gov. Pete Wilson, said he was not surprised that his decision ignited an effort to topple him. Making light of his circumstances, he recalled what a senior judge told him at the time of his first judicial appointment--to the Los Angeles Municipal Court--25 years ago.

" 'Ron, remember,' " George said the judge advised. " 'Every time you make a decision you will make one temporary friend and one permanent enemy.' And my experience in the last 25 years has not done anything but validate the wisdom of that observation."

George said he "will do whatever it takes, within the confines of good judgment and ethical behavior," to publicize his judicial record and win confirmation.

He also expressed hope that voters will look at his entire career on the bench and not be swayed by "single-issue or single-case politics." To punish judges for a single decision threatens to undermine their ability to decide cases strictly on the law, he said.

"If you have a judge worrying about each particular decision and how that's going to impact his or her reelection chances, then you really lose the impartial approach to judicial issues," George said. "And then you have judges who would be potentially susceptible to pressure from special-interest groups or powerful individuals."

The opposition to George and Chin--who is also a Republican appointed by Wilson--is led by the California ProLife Council. In addition to their bid to unseat the justices, antiabortion forces tried to place an initiative on the November ballot to require that girls obtain parental permission for abortions. But that effort fizzled for lack of funds.

An estimated 30,000 minors have abortions in California each year. Although most Californians support abortion rights, a recent Times poll found that 67% of voters believe parents should have a say in whether their daughters may have one.

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