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EDITORIALS: THE SATURDAY PAGE / ARNOLD'S WORLD

A beacon on the bench

January 07, 2006

THE CENTRISM THAT IS AT least briefly infusing Sacramento is fragile and likely to falter as this election year progresses. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's newly appointed state Supreme Court justice, Carol A. Corrigan, whose aversion to ideology is a hallmark, offers a steadying example. The governor and Legislature would benefit from following her dedication to deciding issues on their merits. It wouldn't hurt to adopt her sense of humor as well.

To carry the analogy between judging and legislating further, Corrigan's predecessor, Janice Rogers Brown (recently appointed to a federal appellate court by President Bush after caustic debate about her ideological stiffness) had a humorless, my-way-or-the-highway view of the law and life that sometimes offended her colleagues and brooked little compromise. While perhaps tolerable on the bench, this inability to see other sides would be fatal to governing.

We welcome Corrigan to California's highest court and offer a few of her public statements for study as elected leaders embark on repairing their governing skills, as well as the state's weary infrastructure. Change a few key words, and her philosophy on judicial practice would apply equally to legislating:

"The law doesn't belong to the judges, it belongs to the people. It belongs to all of us. And so it's important for judges to listen to the voice of the people and follow the law." (Dec. 9 news conference)

"I think that people, when they come before the court, ought to have a feeling that they are in front of [judges] who are really listening to this case and not to be burdened that Judge X always goes that way." (Los Angeles Times, Dec. 10)

"I think I would probably be a centrist anyplace I found myself. I was a moderate Democrat, and now I am a moderate Republican.... I am moderate on virtually all things." (Los Angeles Times, Dec. 10)

As for clarity of expression, Corrigan led a widely admired revision of judges' instructions to jurors. Writers of law should memorize this small sample:

Before: "Innocent misrecollection is not uncommon."

After: "People sometimes honestly forget things."

And that sense of humor:

A colleague on the court recalled that, as Corrigan waited to give a speech to a group of trial lawyers, her chair tipped backward and she fell to the stage. She got up, went to the microphone and asked: "Is there a good lawyer in the house?" (Sacramento Bee, Dec. 10)

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