Justice Assails California Court Budget Cuts

     SACRAMENTO (CN) - Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye couldn't have made it any clearer Monday in her speech to the Legislature: "I am afraid California is on the wrong side of history when it comes to its funding of justice."
     Without some restoration of funding for the courts, Cantil-Sakauye warned, more Californians will be cut off from justice.
     Cantil-Sakauye's annual State of the Judiciary address came one week short of the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court's Gideon v. Wainwright ruling, which guaranteed poor criminal defendants the right to be represented by counsel.
     "It has continuing relevance today because the case speaks to us about fairness and about the importance of the courts and what is necessary to have meaningful access to justice," the chief justice said.
     "To have your day in court, you need a courtroom. But what we once counted on, that courts would be open, available and ready to dispense prompt justice, is no longer true. Our judicial branch budget has been cut greater and deeper than any other court in the United States."
     Cantil-Sakauye expressed a concern shared by many of the state's trial judges: that courts will have to be self-financed through prohibitively expensive filing fees and increased fines.
     "All of us worry that the judicial branch may become a user-fee institution and that the ever-increasing fines and penalties are falling on those least able to afford it," she said.
     While she touched on the judicial branch's dire financial circumstances last year in her inaugural address, this year the tone was also hopeful, as Cantil-Sakauye laid out her plans for reforming the judiciary's staff agency, the Administrative Office of the Courts. She offered a progress report on those reforms, which many judges believe have not been fully achieved.
     Cantil-Sakauye said the Judicial Council is implementing the more than 100 recommendations made by the Strategic Evaluation Committee of judges she appointed last year to investigate the AOC, and touted the opening of previously closed Judicial Council meetings to the public.
     "As I stand before you as Chief Justice of California, it would be unsuitable for me to advocate for branch funding if I didn't look within our own house and find out ways that we could improve and be better," she said. "And I have.
     "But I want to say that no amount of efficiencies that we can implement will ever make up for a billion-dollar cut. We will never have a fully functioning judiciary when we are receiving one penny for every dollar of the general fund."
     Cantil-Sakauye added: "However, the judicial branch is structurally 16 years old, and like any adolescent, it needs a check-in."
     She plugged a new technology task force headed by many of the same judges and court officials who were behind the Court Case Management System, a statewide computer system that came to a screeching halt last spring, after nearly a decade of work and hundreds of millions of dollars.
     The project was widely criticized as too expensive, its technology unwieldy and dysfunctional and its management bungled by bureaucrats.
     "It was a project that came to fruition in my tenure, along with exposed issues of mismanagement, fiscal issues and problems," Cantil-Sakauye said. "We believed it worked, that it would save money in the long run, but ultimately decided we could not go forward."
     She announced the creation of another committee to examine how the courts can become more efficient.
     "Self-assessment is an ongoing principle," she said. "If the last five years have taught us anything in the judicial branch, it's taught us to of our need to safeguard our judicial system at the same time moving it forward with greater efficiencies."
     Cantil-Sakauye spoke to a full Assembly chamber packed with lawmakers, lobbyists and bureaucrats.
     In an interview after the address, Assembly member Bob Wieckowski, a Democrat from Fremont and chair of the Assembly Judiciary Committee, said he would like to see the $475 million the judiciary is seeking restored to its budget this year.
     He said this could be done by taking the money out of the $1 billion reserve Gov. Jerry Brown has proposed for his budget for fiscal year 2013-14.