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Judgments about a chief justice

Ronald George has been reshaping the state's courts for a decade. Some L.A. jurists say he wields too much power.

December 03, 2006|Maura Dolan | Times Staff Writer

Ten years after Chief Justice Ronald M. George became head of California's courts and dramatically transformed the state's judicial branch, many Los Angeles judges remain resentful of their loss of power and control.

Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer, a Democrat, calls the Republican George "the best chief justice in California history." Some judges in Los Angeles have another name for him:

"King George."

It is a measure of their distrust that few of George's critics would permit themselves to be quoted by name. Privately, they accuse George of building a judicial empire by centralizing administrative power in an ever-growing state bureaucracy.

The resulting conflicts have ranged from whether Los Angeles is getting its fair share of judicial funding to who decides the color of the backings of legal briefs.

Few court users are aware of the tensions. L.A. courts, like others across the state, have enjoyed increased funding under George, although the hike in Los Angeles, where caseloads have been flat for eight years, is less than in growing counties like San Bernardino and Riverside.

But the acrimony threatens to undercut George's campaign to make the courts uniform from county to county, and to speak with one voice when seeking new judgeships and more money.

Under George, the Legislature approved the transfer of courts from county to state control. The San Francisco-based Administrative Office of the Courts, a once obscure agency with few duties, has ballooned as it implements ambitious policies set by the Judicial Council, the courts' policymaking body that George heads.

Since George became chief, the office has more than doubled its staff to 600, opened branches in Sacramento and Burbank and, according to some L.A. judges, created "opulent" offices with "plasma TVs."

The goal was to create a unified judicial branch with stable funding. But many Los Angeles judges, accustomed to calling the shots, chafe at having the purse strings shifted from the L.A. County Board of Supervisors, a short walk from the downtown courthouse, to San Francisco, where the Administrative Office takes up five floors in a state building and where L.A. is just one of 58 courts vying for attention.

"All of a sudden this new state organization has the ultimate control technique -- budget power -- so the troops down in the trenches aren't necessarily thrilled," said an L.A. judge who declined to be identified.

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Robert Dukes, one of the few jurists willing to talk for attribution, said most courts in California have probably benefited from George's changes. But the Los Angeles court enjoyed good relations with the county and probably would have fared better under county control, he said.

It is impossible to determine whether Dukes is correct. Funding for the trial courts rose 89% under George, according to the Administrative Office, while the increase for Los Angeles was 60.5%, according to an L.A. court spokesman.

During the same decade, the Administrative Office budget grew by at least 74%. The exact amount is unclear because of the way the office calculates its budget.

George's fans, and they are many, maintain that the L.A. jurists resist change, even when it would save money, and criticize new policies even when fellow L.A. judges help craft them.

"They are always dragging their heels," said Christine Hansen, head of the Administrative Office's finance division.

From the start, George set out to make courts "user-friendly," declaring they were for the people, not the lawyers and judges.

"I have tried to create a strong and independent judicial branch that can resist pressure from the other two branches and have financial independence," said George, a former L.A. judge who spends time in San Francisco and maintains a home in Los Angeles County.

When George became chief justice in 1996, he visited all of California's 58 counties. He observed rat-infested, overcrowded and crumbling courthouses, one so cramped that a broom closet sufficed as a judge's chambers.

"The courts were going belly-up," George said.

Overworked judges in some Superior Courts had trials backed up for years, whereas under-worked judges in Municipal Court went home early, George said.

Under George, all of the courts became Superior Courts. Responsibility for the courthouses is gradually shifting to the state, and state money is doled out by the Administrative Office, which has taken over accounting, technology, human resources, contracting and legal support responsibilities from the counties.

George "is perhaps the most effective administrative chief justice in the history of California," said Court of Appeal Justice Norman Epstein, a judge for 26 years. "The thing he has set out to do -- and has accomplished -- in his 10 years is just extraordinary."

But the shift of authority, in the eyes of some L.A. judges, has meant less respect for traditions that reflect Los Angeles' unique legal culture and less local control.

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