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Saturday, July 13, 2024 | Back issues
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California Chief Justice Says Courts Are Suffering Death by 1,000 Cuts

SACRAMENTO (CN) - With a highly critical audit of the California judicial bureaucracy's spending of taxpayer dollars still fresh, Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye's state of the judiciary address focused on the courts' quest for efficiency and innovation and called for greater investment in the courts.

"I know that as three branches of government, we can disagree on many, many things, but I'd like to believe that we can all agree on one thing, and that is our hope for a fair and enduring democracy," Cantil-Sakauye said, adding that this can be achieved through "investing in the future, including the judiciary."

The state's top judge did not mention the State Auditor's report, released this month, which documented the judicial bureaucracy's waste of hundreds of millions of dollars that could have gone to the trial courts during the state's long-running budget crisis.

Assemblyman Reginald Jones-Sawyer called for the audit of the bureaucracy, formerly called the Administrative Office of the Courts, in February 2014.

On Monday, Cantil-Sakauye focused instead on the financial crisis that led to cuts of more than $1 billion from the judiciary's budget for five years - as long as she has held the chief justice position.

"Because the judiciary is only 1¼ percent of the state's general fund, the cuts to the judicial branch fell particularly hard on people who tried to go to court," she told a joint session of the Legislature Monday.

She added, "However we had a response to this. Our response has been threefold: advocacy, self-assessment and innovation."

She pointed to similarities between the judiciary and the Legislature, and compared lawmakers to the judges that sit on the Judicial Council, the rulemaking body for the courts.

"You serve on committees assigned by your leaders. The Judicial Council members also serve on committees. In addition to that, the Judicial Council has over 30 different advisory committees for each subject matter discipline of the law that advises the Judicial Council on proposals," she said. "We, like you, are a very fluid body, with much input in this collaborative process."

The Judicial Council's scores of committees have been a sore subject for trial judges, who have long criticized the council's makeup, and more recently by Jones-Sawyer, who said at a recent hearing on the State Auditor's report, "You cannot lead by committee."

Cantil-Sakauye pointed out that her first move as chief justice was to appoint a committee of judges and "court government experts" to evaluate the AOC. That group of judges, called the Strategic Evaluation Committee, released a report blasting the bureaucracy for straying far from its original path of serving the trial courts, and for being deceptive about finances and personnel. The judges also criticized the bureaucracy as top-heavy, overpaid and badly organized.

"Self-assessment resulted in quite a few things," Cantil-Sakauye said, touting a 33 percent cut in AOC staff, down to 780 from its 2010 peak of 1,121, as well as the opening of some Judicial Council meetings and an open meetings rule for the council's myriad advisory and subcommittee meetings.

While the council drafted that open meetings rule, it was born out of a legislative mandate from the 2013 Budget Act. Governor Jerry Brown vetoed that mandate, saying the judiciary should write its own rule.

Cantil-Sakauye's Monday address thanked the governor and Legislature for the millions that have been put back into the branch's budget, but said that it hasn't been enough to fully restore court services.

"We've seen some new investment back into the judicial branch, but as you know, it's not enough," she said. "We fall short, as is evidenced by our continued court closings, courthouse closures, reduced hours and our employees who are still, yes, on furlough."

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