Chief Justice: California courthouses are crumbling

Legal News Line Sep. 29, 2008, 11:35am

Ronald George

MONTEREY, Calif. (Legal Newsline)-California Chief Justice Ronald George continued his career-defining effort to make the state's judicial system more efficient during his State of the Judiciary speech at the State Bar Meeting on Saturday.

George, who has led a decade-long effort during his tenure on the California Supreme Court to overhaul an unwieldy, Byzantine court structure, outlined critical needs facing the judicial branch.

George told the audience many of the courthouses themselves - decaying edifices that pose safety risks, the Chief Justice said -are in dire need of renovation.

"California's judicial branch cannot wait for the economy to return to health before considering how best to serve the public," George said. "There simply are too many challenges to meet - with or without much-needed additional resources - that must be dealt with now."

George told the Conference of Delegates that people "have been placed at serious risk by decades of neglect" to the state's many courthouses.

A step in the right direction came earlier this week, George said, when Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed legislation to provide $5 billion in revenue bonds to build and renovate California courthouses.

The money will finance roughly two-thirds of the 68 courthouse projects deemed as having "immediate and critical needs," George said.

George, who became Chief Justice in 1996, left an enduring mark on the legal system with his emphasis on administrative change designed to make the court system more efficient. He shifted court funding from individual counties to the state, and worked doggedly with the Legislature to modernize the state's vast court system.

He also combined the municipal and superior court systems into one more streamlined branch of government.

Ironically, the judge known for more than a decade as a tough-on-crime conservative appointed by Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, is under heavy fire these days from conservatives shocked by his legal ruling in May that allowed gay marriages in the state.

The attention from the decision has colored over George's primary emphasis for more than a decade on streamlining the state's courts.

True to form during Saturday's address, George cited his administrative accomplishments, including new pilot programs that authorize court interpreters in civil cases and develop an integrated case management system for trial courts

"An integrated system will permit electronic filing statewide and allow attorneys to have access to up-to-the-minute information on pending cases," the Chief Justice said. "It will enable the timely updating of state criminal history files - 40 percent of which do not have current information."

George said continued progress is still needed, particularly new judgeships in state trial courts that would increase the speed of resolving cases throughout the state, though he admitted that the state's fiscal condition could well preclude such advances.

"Seeking new positions in a time of fiscal downturn may seem like tilting at windmills," George said, "but delays in processing cases, both criminal and civil, strike at the very heart of society. No one disputes the need for new positions."

Three years ago the judicial branch sought 150 new positions, 50 of which are now in place. An additional 50 were created this past year, but the funding was deferred until July 1, 2009, according to a press release issued by the Judicial Council of California.

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