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MONTEREY — Plenty of speakers paraded before lawyers attending the State Bar’s annual meeting over the weekend, but none with a stronger message than the new president of the California Judges Association. Sacramento County Superior Court Judge James Mize warned that the judiciary faces a serious threat to its independence from people and groups that don’t understand the court’s role as a third, and independent, branch of government. He referred to a vow by the conservative group Campaign for California Families to recall Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Loren McMaster, who last month upheld a state law that would give registered domestic partners many of the same rights as married couples. The law is supposed to take effect Jan. 1. “This group did not want a decision made on the facts and the law,” Mize told delegates Saturday, “but upon the political beliefs of that particular interest group.” Unlike legislators or other politicians, judges cannot do anything to defend themselves, Mize argued. Efforts must be taken, he said, to protect judges from knee-jerk attacks by special interest groups. “There is nothing less at stake,” he said, “than the entire justice system of this country.” * * * * After taking over as president of the State Bar on Saturday, John Van de Kamp pledged to do more for the poor and to do everything in his power to diversify the legal profession. Van de Kamp said the state needs more Hispanic and black attorneys, as well as more gays, lesbians and transgenders. “There’s no magic pill,” Van de Kamp said. “But we need to organize a concerted effort by the State Bar in conjunction with every local bar association in the state to better educate high school and college students of color about the opportunities in law.” The former California attorney general also called on every law firm in the state to evaluate its policies on pro bono work. “I’ll be checking on your programs’ progress as I get around the state during the year,” he said, noting that he’s already accepted invitations to speak before groups from Humboldt County to Riverside County. On a lighter side, Van de Kamp promised not to try banning lawyer jokes, as one of his predecessors did many years ago. “We have fun with rabbis, priests and ministers,” he said. “Why not lawyers?” * * * * Chief Justice Ronald George, following a trying budgetary year for the courts, gave a talk on Saturday that was so upbeat about the next year’s prospects that he was interrupted three times by applause. George was especially proud of a new approach to funding trial courts adopted this year. George said the method — which lets the budget start presumptively with the previous year’s amount — represents a “sea change” in the judicial branch’s relationship with the executive and legislative branches. “The judiciary’s budget no longer will be treated as that of just another state agency,” he said, “but instead will be accorded the deference and consideration due an equal branch of government.” * * * * A Friday night reception at the world-famous Monterey Bay Aquarium — with its newly acquired 4-foot, 4-inch, 62-pound great white shark — had all the old lawyer jokes rolling off everyone’s tongues. “The sharks visit the sharks,” one Los Angeles attorney quipped. A San Francisco lawyer said he worried that the great white might drop dead, fearful of all the “land sharks” peering into her tank. The great white shark, a young female put on exhibit only about a month ago, was the big draw of the evening. Just about everyone, including Chief Justice George, asked directions to the tank, and stood mesmerized as the shark swam lazily from side to side and top to bottom. Even new State Bar President Van de Kamp couldn’t resist mentioning the shark in his Saturday acceptance speech. He said he was quite pleased to see the professional courtesy the great white had paid to all the attorneys who showed up. * * * * Senior U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson of San Francisco and California Supreme Court Justice Joyce Kennard both received honors at a luncheon Saturday. Henderson was awarded the Bernard E. Witkin Award, which recognizes attorneys, judges and legal scholars whose lifetime body of work has altered the legal landscape. Kennard was honored as head of the Judicial Council’s appellate advisory committee, which worked for six years to put the state’s appellate court rules in plain English. Unfortunately for both, a thin wall separated the luncheon from a sports bar showing the USC-Cal football game. Loud roars frequently rocked the room.

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