Dan Walters

Dan Walters: California’s judicial war still raging

Dan Walters
Dan Walters

When Tani Cantil-Sakauye became California’s chief justice nearly three years ago, she inherited a nasty judicial squabble from her polarizing predecessor, Ron George.

George had persuaded the Legislature to have the state assume financial and operational control of what had been a locally managed court system, thus making him the boss of an immense state agency.

Many local judges resented what they saw as George’s autocratic style of governance through a State Judicial Council and an Administrative Office of the Courts that he controlled, dubbing him “King George.”

Resentments flared into open political warfare with the creation of the anti-George Alliance of California Judges, and the infighting intensified when a chronic state budget crisis squeezed the courts.

The rebels accused George and the court bureaucracy of protecting themselves from pain while squandering billions of dollars on an inoperable “case management” system.

Former state Sen. (and Judge) Larry Stirling, who co-sponsored legislation to unify the courts, wrote recently, “Chief Justice George completely misrepresented the purpose and intent of unification and used his misrepresentations for only one reason, to hijack the state court system.”

Cantil-Sakauye declared that she wanted to close the rift with a more collaborative and transparent approach. The inoperable computer system was abandoned and the court system’s chief administrator under George also retired.

However, with a continuing financial squeeze, the judicial war has continued.

The rebels say that Cantil-Sakauye, despite declaring that “I believe in complete transparency,” has not made any fundamental changes.

Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a bill requiring more judicial transparency at her request. Last week, the Judicial Council unveiled a new policy on open meetings – but it contained many exceptions and drew sharp criticism not only from rebel judges but also from publications that specialize in covering the judiciary.

In the midst of this turmoil, former Chief Justice George’s memoirs were published, touching off still another firestorm.

In the book, he acknowledged that he once threatened the California Judges Association with “war” if it sought legislation to have members of the Judicial Council elected rather than appointed by him.

That generated articles in the judicial press once again raising the issue of what one called “George’s strong-arm approach to running California’s judiciary.”

George, answering questions at a book-signing event, laughed off criticism.

“I find it amusing,” he said in response to one question. “There’s always the question of who’s boss. I take it with good humor.”

As demonstrated by the new flap over transparency, however, the friction his reign fostered is still very much alive.