The nation's system of judicial independence is under attack, according to California Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald George.
George, who visited San Diego County last week, said it's an issue that should concern members of the local bar.
"I think that a judge's adherence to the rule of law is the centerpiece of a democratic system of government," he said Friday, speaking at a breakfast hosted by the San Diego County Bar Association. "It's something that distinguishes us from governments around the world.
"If we lose that, if we have to have judges subject to political whims, we will not be bound to the rule of law, but rather to the commitments made to others."
George cited a ballot measure in South Dakota -- cleverly titled Judicial Accountability Initiative Law (JAIL) -- that would have set up roving grand juries empowered to investigate alleged judicial abuses. Under the proposal, judges would have no civil immunity from being sued for damages, they could be criminally prosecuted and jailed, and upon three such findings, a judge would be rendered ineligible for judicial service for life.
While the measure was defeated this November, George said it could be "a preview of coming attractions.
"Our system in California is still by far the best when compared to that of other states, but it still is not immune to these very negative forces."
The JAIL measure was backed by a California group hoping to gain momentum in South Dakota, where fewer signatures are needed to get a measure on the ballot, George said.
"This measure flourished for a time ... despite the fact that there'd been no controversial decision by the South Dakota Supreme Court, no scandal or attack on the integrity of any particular justice," he said. "It was just an anti-judge measure."
George also noted that Ohio and Texas feature races for most judgeships, including positions on the state Supreme Court, where "millions and millions of dollars" are spent on individual races.
One year, he said, competing oil companies backed state Supreme Court candidates in Texas.
"In my opinion, that's no way to select a Supreme Court."
The California chief justice also cited a ballot measure in Colorado, which was defeated, that would have retroactively imposed term limits, removing all but two of the state's Supreme Court justices.
In more encouraging news, George highlighted some recent strides made by judges in California.
"We had a phenomenal year last year," he said.
The chief justice, working with the governor's office and the legislature, secured 50 new judgeships for the state. He hopes to add 100 more in the next two years in an effort to improve access to the courts.
"If you don't have enough judges to try the cases, you're going to have backlogs," he said.
According to one study, California is in need of 355 new judicial positions.
"The need is really urgent," George said. "Riverside Superior Court for the last couple of years had to suspend its entire civil trial calendar for several weeks just to take care of last-day criminal cases."
In an effort to promote diversity, minority bars and specialty bars will be given notice of judicial openings.
George reported that judges will get a 14.5 percent pay increase, improving the state's ability to attract and retain the best of the bench. He added, however, that work still need to be done to improve the retirement system for those judges appointed after 1994.
For the next 10 years, the challenge is finding a way to deal with the increasingly large number of individuals who have no counsel, especially in the area of family law. He wants to provide self-help programs and expand the court's services. There is one legislative proposal to provide counsel in limited, "but crucial" areas such as child custody.
"This is not a desire to supplant the role of counsel," George said. "It's for people who cannot afford counsel."