Chief: The Quest for Justice in California, by Ronald M. George (Institute of Governmental Studies Press, 822 pp., $40)
The Supreme Court of California has had some towering chief justices in its history: Stephen J. Field (1859–63) went on to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court for 34 years; Phil S. Gibson (1940–64) was a pioneer of judicial administration and reform; and Roger Traynor (1964–70) was the progressive architect of much modern civil rights and torts jurisprudence. California has also had its share of mediocre—and some disgraceful—chief justices, such as Rose Bird (1977–87), whom voters threw off the bench for her activist rulings. Ron George, who served as chief justice from 1996 until 2011, wants to be included in the heroic group. The considerable girth of his “assisted memoir,” Chief: The Quest for Justice in California, is due to its unusual format—it’s an edited transcript of 20 “oral history” (read: interview) sessions spanning 65 hours. As a literary device, the oral history turns out to be lots of softball questions, verbose answers (some bordering on harangues), dry anecdotes, and self-regard. Chief is George’s effort to write his place in history, and he aims high. In George’s telling, he was unsurpassed in every role he played.
What is George’s legacy as chief justice? Alas, few people pay attention to the state judiciary. (How many readers know the name of the California’s chief justice, who penned a fawning introduction to Chief? To save you the trouble, it’s Tani Cantil-Sakauye.) But George’s story is significant if only as an illustration of judicial hubris, of how power breeds arrogance, and of how a desire for respect from the establishment leads to activism from the bench.
George is the quintessential patrician: raised in Beverly Hills, educated (in French) at private schools in Switzerland, graduated from Princeton and Stanford Law. He spent not a day on the private-sector payroll his whole career. His 45 years of public service included almost four decades wearing a robe, starting with an appointment to the Municipal Court at 32. Throughout his career, George, a Republican, charted a “centrist” course that led to his appointment to successively higher posts by both Republican and Democratic governors. George was a chameleon when it came to policy and principle, constantly yielding to prevailing political fashions. For instance, as a young lawyer, when it was expedient to do so, he defended the death penalty; now he opposes it as a “charade.” By George’s account, he wrangled a superior court appointment from Governor Jerry Brown in 1977 only after threatening to run against an incumbent judge. Yet as an appellate judge himself, George criticized judicial elections as a threat to “judicial independence.”
In fairness, as chief justice, George oversaw the “unification” of California’s bifurcated trial courts. And in 1998, George won his retention election (appellate judges appear on the state ballot every 12 years) by 50 points. He overcame the opposition of pro-life groups outraged by his controversial four-to-three opinion in American Academy of Pediatrics v. Lungren (1997), which granted the right of minors to have abortions without parental consent under the state constitution (though the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly held that the Constitution confers no such right).
George was a deeply polarizing chief justice, earning the sobriquet King George from normally close-knit fellow judges, whom he antagonized with his autocratic direction of the policymaking California Judicial Council (controlled by his hand-picked appointees) and its bureaucratic counterpart, the Administrative Office of the Courts (which grew to more than 1,000 employees during his tenure). George used unification as a pretense to seize control of the state’s trial courts, which were historically elected and controlled locally by each of the state’s 58 counties. His centralized management style proved disastrous. For instance, one of George’s pet projects, a statewide computer system for the judiciary, the Court Case Management System, had to be abandoned as unworkable after more than $500 million had been squandered on its failed implementation. (George, a notorious micromanager, blamed the AOC staff for the unprecedented debacle.) As self-appointed czar of the courts, George became chief lobbyist for the state judicial budget. Unfortunately, due to his misplaced spending priorities, state courts were forced to close one day a month, even as his bloated AOC bureaucracy grew ever larger.
George’s judicial legacy as chief justice will be remembered for three things. First, George steered the court on a more liberal course than that of his respected predecessor, Malcolm Lucas, even though Republican governors had appointed a majority of the court’s members. Second, he engineered a striking—and unseemly—flip-flop in the aforementioned American Academy case. In a close decision written by liberal Democrat Stanley Mosk, the court had previously upheld a bipartisan statute requiring parental consent for minors to obtain abortions. George dissented. With the retirement of two conservative colleagues who had voted with Mosk, George garnered an additional vote and managed to turn his dissent into an activist 4-3 majority opinion. He managed to show disrespect for stare decisis, the Democrat-controlled legislature that passed the offending statute, and his retired former colleagues. Third, and perhaps most importantly, in the 2008 In re Marriage Cases—one of four decisions of which he is proudest—the court overturned a 2000 voter-approved initiative limiting the definition of marriage to that between one man and one woman. His novel decision held that the statutory prohibition of same-sex marriage violated the state constitution (a familiar resort for state court activists in the absence of federal precedent). California voters swiftly showed their disagreement by amending the state constitution (via Proposition 8) to ban same-sex marriage.
Chief establishes that George is not just hubristic, but also mean-spirited. He dismisses the 500-member Alliance of California Judges, formed to oppose his centralized management policies, as “malcontents,” “insects” beneath the status of ants, and “not much more than an e-mail string on the fringe of the judiciary.” George singles out Janice Rogers Brown, a jurist who served with him on the state supreme court prior to being appointed by President George W. Bush to the D.C. circuit, for being “less than pleasant,” “brusque,” and “not get[ting] along very well with her colleagues.” Maybe, but one gets the impression that George was put off by her refusal to heed his unsolicited advice and suggestions on how to write her opinions.
Sprinkled throughout the rest of this tome, readers will find conventional liberal thinking aplenty: the U.S. Supreme Court’s decisions in Citizens United (corporate speech) and D.C. v. Heller (the Second Amendment case) were incorrectly decided; Bush v. Gore was purely political; and so on. In typically self-serving fashion, George claims that he chose to resign as chief justice in mid-2010, prior to the retention election scheduled for November 2010, “while I was at the top of my game.” George may have been wise to avoid another election. He poked California voters in the eye once too often. Few were sad to see King George go.