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Court chief highlights judiciary’s efforts to overcome funding gap

By Amy Yarbrough
Staff Writer

Addressing lawmakers in Sacramento last month, Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye spoke of fairness, collaboration and ongoing projects to ensure more Californians have access to justice.

Tani Cantil-Sakauye
Cantil-Sakauye delivers the State of the Judiciary address March 17 in Sacramento -- AP photo

She also did not miss the opportunity to make a case for the state’s financially strapped courts.

With the nation preparing to mark the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act this year, Cantil-Sakauye called it tragic that budget cuts have shuttered courthouses, delaying cases and making it difficult for many Californians just to get to court.

“As you know, the reductions have fallen hardest on the process of civil cases. And so we face astonishing and harmful delays in urgent family matters, in business contracts, wrongful termination, discrimination cases, personal injury cases – across the board,” Cantil-Sakauye said during her State of the Judiciary address on March 17.

“Nevertheless, we continue to persevere. But it’s tragic that 50 years after the enactment of the Civil Rights Act, California faces a different type of civil rights crisis. It’s not about the law. It’s about access to it.”

In the last six years, the judicial branch has weathered $1 billion in budget cuts. Fifty-one courthouses have shut their doors, 205 courtrooms have closed and 30 courts have reduced their public service hours, among other cutbacks. Although the governor’s proposed budget for next fiscal year recommends an additional $105 million for the trial courts, Cantil-Sakauye has warned that the funding still falls short.

During the speech Cantil-Sakauye referenced her report released in January called a “Three-Year Blueprint for a Fully Funded Judicial Branch,” which concluded that the judicial branch would need an additional $1 million just to maintain the status quo.

Cantil-Sakauye said the report not only lays out the judicial branch’s costs but also serves as “a reminder that court closures have deprived at least 2 million Californians of access to a local court.

“A one-way, three-hour trip to a courthouse can’t be fair in anybody’s book,” she said.

Cantil-Sakauye also touched on various efforts by the judicial branch to promote fairness, projects she said are only possible because of collaboration. Among other endeavors, California has been a leader in the development of collaborative courts, thanks to a combination of legislative support, executive support in grant funding, judges and lawyers and support programs at the local level, she said.

In addition, self-represented litigants in the state now have access to more than 100 self-help centers, made possible through the combined efforts of lawmakers and the judicial branch.

Under a 2-year-old partnership with the state superintendent of public instruction to promote civics learning in grades kindergarten through 12th grade, public high schools are honored each year for making civics learning a priority. Like last year, Cantil-Sakauye said she plans to go to the schools to personally deliver their awards.

“When I go there, I like to tell them how we all work together and how it is that we have a judicial branch that’s 17 years young,” she said. “I tell them that the reason we’re 17 years young is because with the help of the Legislature and the executive branch and the voters, we were able to condense and transition from over 220 disparate courts into 58 efficient superior courts.”

Returning to the theme of civil rights, Cantil-Sakauye quoted a letter that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. sent to his fellow clergymen after they criticized him for bringing the civil rights movement to Birmingham, Ala. His words still ring true today, she said.

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in a network of inescapable mutuality. We are tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly,” she said

“I would argue that that quote, 50 years later, is relatable to the three branches of government and how we operate, and collectively serve the public.”