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Back in the late 1990s, I spent a few years reporting on Judicial Council meetings for this newspaper. At one meeting five or six years ago, I remember Lois Haight, a Contra Costa County judge and member of the council, approaching Chief Justice Ronald George with a tribute of sorts. It was a crown. There was no question then that George was the council’s shot-caller, and there’s no question now. When favored lieutenants open their mouths at meetings, you can almost see his lips move. When I covered the council, it was clear that any real debate happened behind the closed doors of committee meetings or at closed “education” sessions. The council already consists almost entirely of George’s handpicked appointees; the chief names 14 of the 21 voting members. But as Staff Writer Jeff Chorney reported Wednesday, George is now working to stamp down calls by some judges to “democratize” the council and make it less of a rubber stamp. Some judges are wary of a proposed constitutional amendment, backed by George, that would give him appointment power over four seats now filled by the State Bar; some restive subjects want instead to see some elected slots so they can have a voice. George says that’s a terrible idea. It’s easy to see why he thinks so, but he should think again. Due in part to George’s strategic deployment of power, the council has been able to grind down resistance to its years-long campaign to streamline and centralize court administration. He’s probably done more to address the system’s inefficiencies and inequities than any other chief justice. As George himself points out, he’s got the judicial administration awards to prove it. A lot of the grumbling is based on the loss of perks — like paid CJA memberships, or seniority systems for courtroom assignments — that make no sense. Then again, where’s the guarantee that the expanding class of apparatchiks at the Administrative Office of the Courts aren’t creating new problems with all that central planning? Then, too, is the fact George won’t reign forever. The state’s judges are right to worry about what happens when he leaves. Look back a quarter-century: Even after adjusting for the griping from those whose ox got gored, Chief Justice Rose Bird was considered a spectacularly bad administrative minder, possessed of an uncanny ability to rub people the wrong way. Perhaps most troubling about George’s grasp on the council’s agenda, however, is his claim that his grip isn’t a firm one. “I don’t make my views known,” George said, “so it’s rare that I weigh in anyway.” Riiiiight. The council is no democracy, and George knows it. Pretending otherwise only fuels paranoia among his loyal subjects. “Is it not remarkable that 21 people can so often unanimously agree?” asks Gregory O’Brien Jr., a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge and past president of the California Judges Association. “Even on how a $2.5 billion budget can be spent, even down to the last dollar? I think it’s extraordinary.” George needs to send the message that he is not an absolute monarch, and will tolerate dissent. He ought to drop the idea of taking the four appointments away from the State Bar. If anything, he should consider spreading the appointment power around, to build support for the council’s aims. And his appointees should be encouraged to argue, even at public meetings. The airing of disagreements won’t be seen as evidence of dysfunction, but of proper functioning. Finally, for good measure, maybe George should put O’Brien in one of those 14 seats.

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