California’s Chief Justice Warns of Upcoming Wildfire Claims

SACRAMENTO (CN) – California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye took an optimistic tone Monday at her annual state of the judiciary address, touting the branch’s commitment to a fair and accessible justice system and calling for more resources from California’s other two branches to expand its reach to its neediest citizens.

“All of us here support a fair and accessible justice system and our residents deserve that. It’s only natural that California be the leader in this regard,” Cantil-Sakauye told a joint session of the Legislature in a speech that focused on the judiciary’s collaborative efforts to reform the state’s bail system and introduce more technology into court services.

She thanked Governor Jerry Brown for a robust contribution to court funding this year, saying she was “gratified” that Brown’s proposed budget incorporates three recommendations made by the Commission on the Future of California’s Court System, a group assembled by Cantil-Sakauye in 2015 to set priorities for the courts.

Brown’s proposed budget includes $19 million to expand self-help services for litigants without lawyers, $4 million for interpreter services and $3.4 million for a five-year pilot project to adjudicate minor traffic violations online. All of these priorities were taken from the commission’s report.

Cantil-Sakauye said she’s also looking forward to an additional $123 million in support for trial court services, in light of the wildfire-related litigation courts will be dealing with in the coming years.

“This money will provide an opportunity for courts to help and resolve cases in a timely matter in the civil arena. There’s an onslaught of cases waiting to be filed,” she said, noting that with the fires alone, Californians have filed roughly 45,000 insurance claims totaling more than $12 billion, over loss and damage to 42,000 homes and 4,000 businesses.

To that end, Cantil-Sakauye pushed for what she called “a three tier civil justice reform initiative,” which would include reinstating regular hours at courthouses, a persistent problem since “the budget crunch years” when hours were slashed and courthouses shuttered for days at a time.

“We should restore courthouses to their full operating hours and staff, and provide fair compensation to our court family,” the chief said, to resounding applause.

The second and third tiers of her plan comprise support for Brown’s budget from lawmakers, and developing a team of courthouse helpers, what the chief justice called “legal way-finders who could personally assist people who come to court without an attorney.”

This group, she said, would help court visitors find the right courtroom or filing window, locate the proper forms and assist in filling out and filing paperwork.

“Self-help provides the best possible outcome for all litigants and it helps keep the courts running effectively, because if the paperwork isn’t filled out correctly it only results in delays,” she said.

Cantil-Sakauye also enthusiastically praised the efforts of another working group of judges, who published a report last year recommending alternatives to money bail.

Last October, the chief justice called for the state to abolish its bail system following the report’s release.

“We’ve had the opportunity to step back and study the needs of our court users and the future of justice in California,” she said. “And we first turned to the needs of those who are indigent and accused. And it is in that situation that we asked: is money bail safe and is it even fair?”

The judges’ Pre-Trial Detention Report, she said, contains “echoes of history” from 1964, when then-Attorney General Robert Kennedy condemned the money bail system as “a vehicle for systematic injustice.”

“He said, ‘it is cruel and the cost of that system is needless,’ ” Cantil-Sakauye said. “I’m going to tell you in 1964 that is pretty strong language. I’ll submit to you that in 2018 it is a clarion call for justice.”

 

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