A Courthouse And A Legacy
By Samantha Mehlinger - Staff Writer
September 10, 2013 - He was our state assemblymember, our state senator, our state attorney general and our state governor, but through all the years and all the titles, Gov. George Deukmejian has never forgotten that to Long Beach, he is also our neighbor.
The Business Journal invited “our neighbor” to discuss The Governor George Deukmejian Courthouse – which opened yesterday, September 9 – his legacy and his views of the California judicial and correctional systems.
If you told Deukmejian, who at age 30 opened his first law office in the 1950s in Long Beach, that a courthouse would one day be named in his honor, you might have been met with a laugh.
“I never expected when I came to Long Beach in 1958 that anything like that would ever happen,” Deukmejian told the Business Journal, inflecting with a soft chuckle. “I am truly very humbled about the fact that they decided to put my name on this beautiful new courthouse.”
With sparkling pillars, a gleaming five-story atrium, public-access retail and other modern amenities, potential jurors opening their summons are likely crossing their fingers in the hopes of being assigned in Long Beach.
“Long Beach has been very good to me over the years. So I am most grateful and feel very blessed about it. And this is the topper,” Deukmejian said as he sat in the Business Journal offices, gesturing to a photo of the courthouse. Not only has the city supported him politically, he said, but he also met his wife, Gloria, here and put all of his children through Long Beach schools.
As a lawyer, a legislator and a former attorney general of California, Deukmejian made his mark on the state’s judicial system by authoring and signing key legislation that in some cases even set national precedent.
As a state senator, Deukmejian authored what would become California’s capital punishment law. Decades later, he is concerned about gridlock on the state’s death row.
“It is very disturbing, because the people have voted at least two times that I can recall that they want to have the death penalty in California and, along with that, that they want to see it implemented. What has delayed its implementation have been matters that the public did not consider or vote upon,” Deukmejian said.
A moratorium on executions was handed down at the federal level in 2006 after the three-drug combination used in state lethal injections was found to be cruel and unusual punishment. But even before the moratorium was implemented, the logjam on death row postponed executions for years. Deukmejian hopes the state and the courts will find a solution so that people are not “waiting on death row for years and years” while “sentences are not being carried out.”
There have been times when the governor made moves that were less in keeping with Republican Party lines. In 1989, he signed the state’s – and the nation’s – first assault weapons ban following the massacre of five young school children and the wounding of dozens others in the City of Stockton. “It was a very, very traumatic experience,” Deukmejian recalled. In his view there is “no reason” for anyone to own an assault weapon, adding that they were “developed for military purposes,” not civilian use.
At the federal level, President Barack Obama and Senator Diane Feinstein have been working to reinstate the country’s assault weapons ban following a string of mass shootings, including those at Sandy Hook Elementary and at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado. Deukmejian declined to offer them advice, stating that it would be “pretty presumptuous of me to advise them.”
Contributions To The Judicial System
In his tenure as governor, Deukmejian made between 800 and 900 judicial appointments. One of the primary reasons he ran for governor was to have the ability to appoint judges, he told the Business Journal.
At the time he ran for governor, he said, “I was very concerned that some of the judges were not fully implementing the laws as they were intended to be implemented. So it was a big issue for me.”
When asked if party affiliation was a factor in judicial appointments, Deukmejian said “yes and no,” laughing at himself a little for his contradiction. One reason he wanted to appoint judges was to provide some balance in the judicial system following Gov. Jerry Brown’s first- and second-term appointments, whom Deukmejian described as being mostly Democrats and liberals.
Still, Deukmejian points out, “I appointed quite a few Democrats.” He estimates about 15 percent of his appointments were Democrats – a partisan to opposition ratio he estimates is typical amongst previous governors.
Making these appointments was not a simple or speedy process, according to Deukmejian. Many parties were involved, he said, including state committees to assess candidates’ qualifications, letters of recommendation, and even locally appointed advisory boards.
Quality counts the most to Deukmejian as far as judicial appointments are concerned. An important characteristic in a good judge includes sound “judicial temperament,” meaning that they are not highly emotional, he stressed. He also values judges who are not on any extreme of the political spectrum, are patient and are knowledgeable in the law. Crucial is “that they have a presence about them that demonstrates that they are in command of their courtroom,” he added.
When election season rolls around, the governor said he gets a lot of phone calls from friends asking for advice on which judges to vote for. In his opinion, “There is not enough information provided to the voter.” The best people can do, he recommended, is do their own research. “If a person is really serious about voting on judges, they really have to do a lot of digging,” he said.
Reflections On Current Affairs
Though out of office since 1991, Deukmejian is no stranger to current affairs afflicting the state’s correctional system. In 2004, he led a panel of experts commissioned by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to assess and provide solutions to problems facing the prison system.
The panel returned with over 200 suggestions, including having a civilian oversight committee keep tabs on the correctional system, providing programs to help inmates adjust to life outside of prison upon release and reducing union influence over prisons. Though the suggestions helped provide insight into problems within the system, Deukmejian said, “I have no firsthand knowledge about what they ever did with the report and whether they ever implemented any of the suggestions.”
Perhaps the biggest problem facing the California correctional system today is overcrowding – so much so that the federal government ordered the state to reduce its population by the end of the year if there is no space to relocate prisoners.
Even with his deliberate way of speaking, Deukmejian does not waste time in commenting that he is “very concerned” about the federal government’s hand in reducing the state’s prison population. “They haven’t had any responsibility for the operation of the state prison system, and now they come along and they order the state to do certain things. Now the judges on the federal court, once they are appointed they are appointed for life, and they are not accountable to the electorate,” he said.
In addition to the federal courts acting without the weight of accountability on their shoulders, Deukmejian is concerned about impacts to communities from the early release of prisoners, which is meant to alleviate overcrowding. He commented that, while the media often refers to these prisoners as non-violent offenders, “there is evidence that some of them have been committing additional crimes back in the community.”
Just two weeks ago, Brown announced he is ordering inmates to be transferred to private and county jails rather than letting them out on early release. In his time as governor, Deukmejian ordered several prisons to be built, and the prison population subsequently increased by tens of thousands. But rather than suggesting more facilities be built, he supports Brown’s suggestion. “Obviously if there are facilities available then I think that they certainly ought to be utilized before considering building more,” he said.
Looking To The Future
Though Deukmejian is now retired, his gubernatorial predecessor, Brown, is back in office, leading what has very much become a “blue” state. When asked if he thinks a Republican will ever win statewide office in California again, Deukmejian laughed heartily and said, with humor, “Oh boy!”
In all seriousness, though, he said, “It’s getting harder and harder for a Republican in California.” He explained that the trend in the state has shown voters leaning more toward liberal, Democratic Party candidates. “But I’m sure when the right person comes along who can generate confidence among the voters, the Republicans will come back.”