CALIFORNIA PANEL NAMED to safeguard judicial independence

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Chief Justice Ronald George

BY JULIA CHEEVER

California Chief Justice Ronald George today announced the formation of a new state commission to study ways to ensure impartiality and accountability of judges in the wake of increasing threats across the country to judicial independence.

The Commission for Impartial Courts will be sponsored by the San Francisco-based state Judicial Council, the governing body of the California court system. As state Supreme Court chief justice, George chairs the council.

George said, “We are forming the Commission for Impartial Courts in response to developments in other states that have changed the tone, tenor, and cost of judicial elections.”

He said, “The manner in which judges are selected, retained, and removed from office can have a serious impact on the independence of the judiciary.

“It is essential that we make every effort to avoid politicizing the judiciary so that public confidence in the quality, impartiality, and accountability of judges is protected and maintained,” the chief justice said.

The commission will be led by an 18-member steering committee chaired by state Supreme Court Justice Ming Chin.

It will have four separate task forces on judicial selection and retention; judicial candidate conduct in election campaigns; judicial campaign financing; and public information and education.

The groups will make recommendations that could lead to changes in the state’s code of judicial ethics or in laws proposed to the state Legislature, George said.

The commission will present its proposals to the Judicial Council in two years.

George said that “a number of disturbing trends have come together.”

These include attacks on judge for their rulings “without consideration for the law that compelled the decisions and without consideration of the procedure by which the decisions were reached,” the chief justice said.

In some states – such as Ohio, where candidates vie in expensive competitive elections for the state supreme court – the need for money to pay for the campaigns can promote politicization of the contests, he said.

George said he considers California’s system for selecting state judges to be “by far the best system” for choosing state judges.

California Court of Appeal and Supreme Court justices don’t have contested elections. Instead, they are appointed by the governor and approved by a state commission and then appear on the ballot every 12 years for confirmation by the voters.

At the Superior Court level, California trial judges run for office in nonpartisan elections every six years. In practice, most are initially appointed to the bench by the governor to fill vacancies and are often not opposed when they run for new terms.

Members of the new commission’s steering committee and task forces include judges, court executive officers, lawyers, government officials, business representatives and members of the public.

Bay City News

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