Justice George's Free Press Legacy

OCT. 18, 2010

By TORI RICHARDS

When California Chief Justice Ronald George retires at the end of the year, the nation will lose one of its staunchest supporters of the public’s right to know — a trailblazer whose rulings have led to open court proceedings that were traditionally closed to the public and transparency in government budgets and salaries.

During his 14 years as chief justice, George has routinely ruled to strengthen public access laws and used the First Amendment as his barometer in giving the press free access unless harm can be proven. He has opened the California Supreme Court to TV cameras, organized a bench-media committee to resolve differences, and taken his court on the road for greater accessibility.

“He’s been superb. For my money, it’s a very sad day that he’s going to be leaving the court from many perspectives,” said Peter Scheer, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, a nonprofit organization that works to defend free speech. “He has been absolutely steadfast in protecting and defending rights of access and aggressively working to expand the public’s right to know what government officials are doing on the public’s behalf.”

In 2007 George authored an opinion that required government agencies including police departments to disclose the names and salaries of all employees making more than $100,000 a year. In the past, many agencies would release only a salary range or details regarding a position without including the employees’ names.

This decision opened the door for the Los Angeles Times to demand disclosure of the top salaries in the city of Bell last summer. A scandal detailing exorbitant pay and the ensuing criminal charges have led to a national movement demanding openness in government.

“Certainly corruption and malfeasance in government is much more likely to occur when the actions and records of agencies aren’t subject to scrutiny by the press, which has the role of acting like the public’s eyes and ears to our government’s operations,” George said in an interview. “There should be a presumption of openness unless a strong showing that should justify closure.”

That line of thinking created a 1999 written opinion that would be George’s greatest legacy, much to the chagrin of some judges who aren’t fans of the press, and celebrities and wealthy executives who crave privacy.

The case – ironically involving a superstar actor — has been mirrored in states across the nation, by federal judges, and by the press as a wedge to include greater access in areas not specifically mandated by George.

The case involved actor Clint Eastwood, who was sued for deceit by former girlfriend Sondra Locke. On his own motion, the Los Angeles Superior Court judge David Schacter ruled that no press or members of the public would be allowed to attend any court sessions held outside the presence of the jury and he sealed the transcripts. Schater’s reasoning was that he didn’t want to jury to see something in the press that wasn’t presented as part of the trial. This included sessions involving picking the jury, attorney arguments over witnesses, and debates over which exhibits should be allowed.

NBC affiliate KNBC and a host of other media outlets sued. The case wound up before the California Supreme Court, which sided with the media. In his opinion, George noted that federal law allowed access to all criminal trials, but was silent on cases of a civil nature, like Eastwood’s.

So George researched the entire history of the First Amendment and ruled in favor of the press.

“We believe that the public has an interest, in all civil cases, in observing and assessing the performance of its public judicial system, and that interest strongly supports a general right of access in ordinary civil cases,” George wrote.

He went on to document several areas of malfeasance by the trial judge, who purposely set out to thwart coverage by the press. As a result of that case, California’s Judicial Council, the state judge’s policy-making body headed by George, put out a set of rules that limited the sealing of court records.

Although the case wasn’t a family law matter, it has led to openness in the formerly secretive world of divorce court. Case in point: the divorce of Los Angeles Dodgers owner Frank McCourt, which has been a media sensation.

“There was no question that McCourt would be open – there wasn’t even a hint that the court would close anything,” said attorney Kelli Sager, who represented the media in the Eastwood case. Sager also sued and won media access to sealed divorce files of Broadcom founder Henry Nicholas and billionaire Ron Burkle. She used the Eastwood case as justification.

“It’s one of the decisions that I’m most proud of,” George said in an interview regarding Eastwood. “Protecting the rights of celebrities did not outweigh the public’s right to know.”

In addition to opening the courts, George also set forth new court rules that opened court budgetary information to the public with rules that mirror that state Public Records Act.

So what’s going to happen once the chief leaves? It’s anyone’s guess, but those who know the court the best hope that it will nothing much.

Chief George’s successor will likely be Tani Cantil Sakauye, an appellate court justice in Sacramento who was nominated by the governor and is on the November ballot. She has been friendly toward the press and will likely adopt much of George’s mindset, one insider predicted.

“I think she’ll be great, she’s been very open,” the insider said, adding that George met with the governor upon the announcement of his retirement and likely pushed for Sakauye as a replacement.

Scheer agreed.

“My initial opinion is that (Sakauye) will follow very much in his footsteps in these areas,” Sheer said. “I would not expect to see any significant pull back. But most people who care about government transparency, good as this new person is, they will be sad to see Ron George go”

Attorney Sager, who has represented media clients for more than two decades, says she believes Sakauye will continue on with George’s tradition because the trend has been going that way for some time.

“I think the path has been set, so I don’t expect it to go backwards,” she said.

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