The Arrogance of King George

A former California chief justice’s memoir is both mean-spirited and self-serving.

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.”

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