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Former California chief justice looks back on his days on the bench

In a new oral history, Ronald M. George discusses the challenges of persuading lawmakers to fund courts, disagreements with colleagues and the process of ruling on gay marriage.

November 06, 2013|By Maura Dolan
  • Former California Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald M. George in 2010, when he announced his retirement from the bench. A new history chronicles his rise from a star prosecutor to become the state's top judge.
Former California Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald M. George in 2010,… (Dave Getzschman, Los Angeles…)

SAN FRANCISCO — When Ronald M. George served as chief justice of California, he pleaded annually with legislators for money to run the courts, warning the loss of funds would compromise justice.

But he said he learned that some lawmakers took positions on the budget for purely personal reasons, obsessively discussing their divorces or traffic tickets and punishing the judiciary for rulings they did not like.

"I remember dealing with one state senator who found it impossible … not to bring up his own divorce proceedings and how he thought he'd gotten a raw deal at the hands of his wife and her attorneys and didn't feel the court system dealt with him fairly," George said, not naming the elected official.

George's recollections are contained in an 800-page history, released Wednesday, in which the longtime California judge and leader of its judiciary ruminates about his time on the court.

The book, a series of questions and answers done for the California Supreme Court Oral History Project, chronicles George's rise as a star state prosecutor in the attorney general's office, where he advocated for a state death penalty law before the U.S. Supreme Court and successfully defended the conviction of Sirhan Sirhan, in the assassination of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, in the state high court.

George's long career on the bench started in the Los Angeles Municipal Court, and he rose through the ranks to Superior Court, state Court of Appeal and finally the California Supreme Court, where he served nearly 20 years, the last 14 as chief justice. George retired in 2011.

Being chief justice requires regular trips from the court's headquarters in San Francisco to Sacramento to lobby legislators and the governor for money.

George said legislators sometimes opposed court bills out of anger at rulings. The state high court's 2008 decision in favor of gay marriage caused Republicans to abandon a court bill they had previously supported, he noted.

One legislator refused to support a revenue bond for court construction because his wife had received what he viewed as an excessive fine for making a rolling stop, George recalled. The bond depended on raising fines.

Besides lobbying for court funds, George swore in governors at the start of their terms. He said Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, an actor, was the only one ever to ask him for a rehearsal of the ceremony.

It went smoothly, but because the event was going to be held on the steps of the Capitol, state security officers had both Schwarzenegger and George wear bulletproof vests.

George, 73, generally praised the other justices he served with but revealed he had behind-the-scenes struggles with former Justice Janice Rogers Brown, appointed to the bench by former Gov. Pete Wilson and named to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit by President George W. Bush.

He said Brown was "quite shy and maybe even withdrawn in temperament" when she joined the court in 1996.

"But it soon became apparent that she did not get along very well with her colleagues," George said. "She could be very unreceptive and less than pleasant when approached in her chambers with suggestions on how to improve her opinion."

George recounted clashing with Brown by memo when he was preparing a majority ruling in a case limiting the use of stun guns. George's draft ruling cited student studies in law reviews.

Brown, in her draft dissent, derided his reliance on student projects. George then added a footnote to his draft to point out that Brown herself had cited three law review articles in one of her rulings.

"That got a bit personal," he said. "She did remove from her dissenting opinion a disparaging reference directed at one of the sources cited in the majority opinion, a Texas law school, after I pointed out that U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia frequently lectured at that institution."

George said he recognized Brown's legal abilities but described her as "the only colleague with whom I served on the Supreme Court whose relationship with the other members of the court could not accurately be characterized as truly collegial." Brown served nine years on the court.

George also was critical of the U.S. Supreme Court. He said he was "shocked" that four justices, led by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., dissented in a ruling that said a West Virginia state high court justice should have stepped aside from a case involving a $3-million campaign contributor.

Roberts complained the majority opinion would force judges to wrestle over how large a contribution required recusal.

Such questions shouldn't matter, George said. "This amount clearly was too much."

Of his own rulings, George wrote that he had prepared two draft opinions reaching opposite conclusions about same-sex marriage and circulated them to the other justices before the 2008 oral argument. Three justices wanted to strike down the marriage ban, three wanted to uphold it.

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