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When Chief Justice Ronald George told the annual meeting of the California Judges Association in November that he was ready to go to war over the makeup of the Judicial Council, he might as well have rolled a grenade into the audience. It wasn’t just the combative tone of George’s comments. It was his timing. A Judicial Council proposal to expand George’s power over council appointments had already been moved to the back burner. Nevertheless, the chief took the opportunity to make clear his feelings that any effort to democratize the council — and reduce George’s influence — would be taken as no less than “a declaration of war.” Judges who were there say George’s forcefulness surprised them, as did his message: that he is unwilling to negotiate when it comes to leadership of the judicial branch. Some already feel that the 27-member council is a rubber stamp for George’s wishes, that real debate about how to run the courts is constrained — something George and others deny. The proposals are new, but the debate is not: The question of how to balance local demands with a state system of governance has been churning since the courts were unified and brought under the umbrella of state funding. Now that the council appears intent on changing the state constitution to cement the chief’s control of appointments, some judges will continue to push for elections to give locals a greater hand in running the state court system. The grumbling is growing louder, fueled by a lack of dissenting votes at the council and suspicions of retribution against the few who cast them. “Is it not remarkable that 21 people can so often unanimously agree? Even on how a $2.5 billion budget can be spent, even down to the last dollar? I think it’s extraordinary,” said Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Gregory O’Brien Jr., the immediate past president of the CJA. In an interview, George said he didn’t improvise his comments; he had thought them out ahead of time because he wanted to head off an alternate proposal discussed within the CJA that would reduce his influence. “I did not want to leave the least misunderstanding about how strongly I felt that that would be a bad idea,” the chief said. But CJA President Eric Taylor, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge, said he would have preferred that George be more diplomatic. “Instead of making a comment like that, he might have just asked,” Taylor said. Although there had been some talk of trying to democratize the council, Taylor said the idea never officially got off the ground. “Part of the discussion that we’ve had so far hasn’t been to undermine the chief’s authority. We love and respect the chief. He’s been great for the courts,” Taylor said. Flattery aside, what’s done is done. And now George, Taylor and others are trying to prevent a real war between judges and the chief. PROPOSAL LEADS TO UNREST The Judicial Council’s proposal would consolidate the chief justice’s authority. Right now, George chairs the group, and 21 members can vote. Besides the chief, those include 14 state judges appointed by George, two legislators (who rarely attend meetings) and four members appointed by the State Bar. According to a September 2002 memo, the council wants to amend the state constitution to let George select the Bar appointees. The amendment would also convert three nonvoting court executives appointed by George into voting members. George said the amendment would continue a revolution in the state court system that began several years ago. “There has been resistance and rumors and controversy about all of these things, yet we’ve been nationally recognized for our changes,” George said recently. The griping “goes with the territory, and it doesn’t particularly bother me.” Though people are reluctant to come forward with complaints, George and others have heard the rubber stamp talk. Some cite the council’s habit of voting unanimously on just about everything that comes before it. For comparison, O’Brien pointed to the state Supreme Court. The court has only seven members, yet hardly ever unanimously agrees on “basic policy,” said O’Brien, who was a member of the Judicial Council. But George said there’s nothing extraordinary about the council’s lack of divisiveness. Most of the heavy lifting on policy or rule changes, he said, is done in the committees, which are closed to the public. “Often, things do get changed,” George said. Plus, George wonders how the council could be his rubber stamp when he doesn’t express how he feels. “I don’t make my views known, so it’s rare that I weigh in anyway,” the chief said. Still, O’Brien said he knows of no other parallel in government where committees appear to work so well. “I think there is greater deference shown to the presiding officer of that body than is shown to the leader of any other legislative entity,” O’Brien said. RETALIATION? As an example of what he considered healthy debate on an issue, the chief pointed to last summer’s flap over the council’s vote on professional association dues. The council’s decision meant courts would no longer pay judges’ $360 annual CJA dues, and some judges complained they were blindsided by the proposal. George said there had been enough time for debate. When the idea was in committee, several people voted against it, but, before the full council, the opposition died down and only one person, Los Angeles Assistant Presiding Judge William MacLaughlin, abstained in the final tally. MacLaughlin said he supports judges paying their own way and abstained only because he felt there wasn’t sufficient time to let judges know the change was coming. After the vote, MacLaughlin, who sat on the powerful Executive and Planning Committee, was transferred to the Policy Coordination and Liaison Committee — leading to rumors that he was retaliated against. George said he has heard the allegations of retaliation, which he called “absolutely ridiculous.” And MacLaughlin said his relationship with the chief has always been cordial. “The chief has never said or done anything to make me believe” there was retaliation, the judge said. Still, the dues vote was on judges’ minds when they attended their November meeting, and many wondered if the vote proved that the council was acting against their interests. They wonder the same thing about the council’s plan to change Article VI of the constitution, which lays out how California’s judicial branch is governed. Besides giving George more appointment power, the council’s proposal suggests other changes, the significance of which depends on whom you ask. One of the most worrisome for some judges is an idea to change the constitutional language describing the power of the council. Right now, the council makes “recommendations to the courts,” but the council would like that to read “establish policy for the courts.” Although the chief and other administrators say it merely describes what’s going on already, a contingent within the CJA sees that change and George’s increased appointments as a power grab. After those concerns came up, O’Brien, the L.A. judge who was then CJA president, began negotiating with George to ensure that the CJA would have a voice on the new council. O’Brien said the chief agreed to a compromise, but it was rejected by the CJA board. O’Brien said democratizing the council was an idea that floated around but never got off the ground. “I don’t think there was any hard and fast proposal,” he said. Taylor, the current CJA president, emphasized that the concerns about the proposal are not about George. “You might have a chief three chiefs from now who is not as capable or as dedicated as this chief. Some have mentioned chief justices of the past. Would we want them to select the entire Judicial Council?” Taylor said. “When we’re talking about the infancy of a new branch of government, certainly one of the topics of discussion should be broad-based representation and democracy.” But George is hostile to the idea. He pointed out that virtually every judicial council in the country has appointed, rather than elected, members. And he believes his process of picking people — most appointees come recommended by the executive committee — is the best way of attaining diversity on the council and ensuring that people come with proven administration experience. “The Judicial Council’s constituency is the public; it is not the judges,” George said. “It’s not supposed to be a popularity contest.” MENDING FENCES The Legislature would have to OK any changes to the constitution, as would voters. But legislators are busy with other matters this year, George said, so it will be awhile before the council introduces a constitutional amendment. Though postponed, the proposal is by no means dead. According to a plan adopted Dec. 5, the council would like to see the constitutional amendment passed by June 2006. Sources who asked not to be named said there will be strong opposition within the CJA if the council pitches the proposal as described in the September 2002 memo. In the meantime, there’s movement to get over the bad blood between the chief and CJA members. The CJA is working with the council and the Administrative Office of the Courts on a couple of projects, including a one-stop help desk for judges who have questions about benefits and other human resource issues. Taylor said he also formed a new CJA committee to assist the chief and council as everyone explores ideas “for securing a fair and accessible justice system in every county.” The groups are also working together to coordinate the education goals of the AOC, the CJA and the Bar, Taylor said. “Relations are not damaged now,” Taylor said. “I’ve known the chief for five years. I don’t think he’s taking this personally, but he may be expressing a strong opinion about what he thinks is best for the judicial branch.” “If, indeed, the discussion comes up again, we’ll continue to talk about it,” he added.

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