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April 24, 2014     Beverly Hills Weekly
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c o v e rst o o-, Former California Chief Justice Ronald George discusses 38 years on the bench and his new book By Nancy Yeang Your memoir, "Chief: The Quest for Justice in California," was recently published. What made you want to write it? It really wasn't my idea. The Institute of Governmental Studies, which is part of University of California, Berkeley, was commissioned to do an oral history of me and I put it off. Once I retired I didn't have much of an excuse to say no, so I agreed to do it. [Laura McCreary] came over and was very, very effective in her research learning about the courts because she wasn't a law- yer. She prepared quite well. I didn't have the questions in advanced but I knew what general areas we would cover. She would just bring her tape recorder over to our home and turn it off three and a half or four hours later and we had 20 of those sessions. But she just asked the question and all the memories started flowing back. I was really shocked. There were things that I never could have guessed I would remember. It must have been a good time for you to tell is all at once too. It was, and there's a certain nice sense of closure of just being able to tell one's story and say, "Okay I've left a record of my service." You mentioned that former Assemblymember Mike Feuer [now LA city attorney] rescued the state's court system at a Beverly Hills Bar Association meeting a few years ago. Tell us about what he did. He was very much involved as a lawyer, and the husband of [Superior Court of Los Angeles County] Judge [Gail Ruderman Feuer], with keeping the court system oper- ating and improving it, especially access to justice. He and I worked together on pro- grams to extend access to justice to people who cannot afford a lawyer, and we have more and more of our population in that category. What are some of those programs? One of the programs is what's called a Sargent Shriver Civil Council Act. There is a constitutional right to coun- sel in criminal cases but not in civil cases, with very few exceptions. Basically in civil cases people have to fend for themselves if they can't afford counsel. I persuaded Governor ]Arnold] Schwarzenegger to allocate some funding for a pilot project in California to provide funds for counsel. Not in the ordinary fender bender car collision case, but in areas where having or not having counsel could be crucial in vindicating one's fundamen- tal rights, such as adoption, child custody, or other mat- ters of that sort. Even though it was a bad year, I was able to persuade the governor to put that on his budget. Mike Feuer was instrumental along with a couple of other leg- islatures in persuading the legislature to pass it. Along those same lines of court access, we recently interviewed BHBA President Diane Karpman, and she said that she doesn't think enough money will be funded to reopen the Beverly Hills Court House. What are some of the issues related to court funding? It boils down to the governor and the legislature allocating enough money. There were some very bad years where cuts were made across the board, but I don't think the governor and the legislature are doing everything they could do and should do to restore some of the funding now that the funding is coming back to the coffers of the state. That just has to be done. Tell us how you became the Chief Justice of California. Actually, as a college student [I] intended to go into the foreign service of the state department. I was at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson's School of Public and International Affairs, which is sup- posed to prepare you for career in the Foreign Service, among other things. In the summer between my sophomore and my junior year, I traveled to Africa with a friend of mine, whose father was in the Foreign Service. In the course of that summer, we were more or less hitch- hiking around West Africa. [It] wasn't, strictly speaking, sticking one's thumb out by the side of the road, but finding out that an American Foreign Service officer, [a] British colonial officer, a missionary, or an African native was headed from one place to another, getting a ride with them, and traveling with them. It was quite an exciting summer. There were some villages we went [to] where I think they have not seen any Caucasians before. In the course of that I ended up meeting some Foreign Service Officers and for a variety of reasons I became disillusioned with the idea [of] a career in the Foreign Service. When I came back and started my junior year, not out of the noblest of motives, I decided to instead apply to law school as a way of postponing the decision of what I do with my career and leaving the greatest number of options open. I went to Stanford Law School. [I did not particularly like] a lot of law school studies, but [ loved constitutional law, that really intrigued me. Consequently, when I graduated I thought that the place I would most like to work would be in the California Department of Justice in the Attorney General's Office because you could, espe- cially when dealing with criminal appeals, be [primarily] arguing constitutional issues. I managed to handle some very big cases. I argued six times before the United States "Here we are trying to export our values to [the] third world, emerging countries, [and] new democracies when we don't even understand our rights and responsibilities ourselves." - 27th California Chief Justice Ronald George Supreme Court as a young lawyer repre- senting the State of California. I handled the prosecution in the California Supreme Court of Sirhan Sirhan, the assassin of Robert F. Kennedy. Through handling these major cases I came to the attention of the person who was then governor, Ronald Reagan, and he appointed me to the Los Angeles Municipal Courts. That just led one thing to another. Governor Jerry Brown elevated me to the Superior Court, then Governor [George] Deukmejian to the Court of Appeal, and Governor [Pete] Wilson to the Supreme Court first as an Associate Justice in 1991, and then as Chief Justice in 1996. [Being] Chief Justice not only [involved] writing opinions issued by the court, [but also] running the Supreme Court itself. Those two tasks are quite manageable, but thirdly and most bur- densome lay being in charge of what's the largest judicial system probably in the world. With double the size of the federal judicia- ry, [there were] more than 1,700 judges and 20,000 court employ- ees, a budget before the recent cuts [that] was almost $4 billion, and frequent trips and crisis in Sacramento with budget cuts and trying to get programs through. I've visited the courts in all 58' counties of California my first year as Chief justice so those were very, very burdensome but worthwhile activities. You've mentioned that many people do not know the three branches of governments. How should people become more involved and more informed? I think it really start at the schools, and I don't think we're doing as good a job as we should in teaching history, and especially civics. For four years I was on the steering committee of former Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's civics program and we had polling done. That was just shocking in terms of two out of three adult Americans not being able to identify the three branches of government: executive, legislative, and judicial. One out of three Americans [are] not able to identify even a single branch of government. Then a poll of high school students that in one instance showed that almost half, 45 percent, thought that in World War lI the U.S. had fought alongside the Germans against Russia. The same high school students who were asked to identify any five US presidents in any order, and most couldn't do it, could identify five brands of designer jeans or sneakers. That shows something quite wrong and here we are trying to export our values to [the] third world, emerging countries, [and] new democracies when we don't understand our Page 8 Beverly Hills Weekly