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California’s Chief Justice Warns That Without Funding Courts Face ‘Dismemberment’

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - Saying, "We're looking at the dismemberment of the judicial branch," California's Chief Justice called for more funding for the courts in a Wednesday talk at the Public Policy Institute.

Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye spoke for an hour with institute president Mark Baldassare, a conversation that more than once steered toward the court funding crisis.

"In the last five years, $1 billion has been taken from the judicial branch," she said. "According to the latest proposed budget, it looks like the judicial branch will receive one penny of every dollar of the General Fund, which is an incredible bargain for what we provide. So we do that without raises and without broadening our scope and without more judges.

"All the while our caseload remains the same. We continue to provide a forum for justice on an ever-shrinking, minuscule slice of the pie. For California, it means disparate access to justice, and in some it means no access to justice."

Cantil-Sakauye pointed to San Bernardino County, which recently closed three of its outlying courthouses, to illustrate the effects of budget cuts.

"So now ... a San Bernardino resident, to get his or her day in court, has to travel 175 miles one way. You have to assume they have transportation, that they can leave work to spend the day in court. Then they have a 175-mile trip back."

She also cited Los Angeles, which will close 10 courthouses by June, and Fresno, which has closed seven courthouses.

"This is happening across the state," the chief justice said. "And what happens is people just won't come to court. They'll try to settle disputes themselves."

There is some hope with the current crop of lawmakers, she said.

"I feel like we're being heard, but it's always good to educate. They've been receptive and I'm glad they are willing to listen to us and hear us out."

The talk turned to the ballot initiative process.

Under questioning from Baldassare, Cantil-Sakauye said it can be burdensome on the Supreme Court. Referring to her predecessor, Cantil-Sakauye said, "The great Ron George talked about the initiative process as a straitjacket.

"It's almost as if the initiative process' strategic plan is to get to the California Supreme Court because that is where it seems they always end up."

She added, "We realize this is direct democracy, it is the will of the people. So all the time we start with the presumption of upholding the people's will while hewing to the Constitution. My predecessor called it a workplace hazard. I wouldn't go so far as that but it's quite a heavy load for the Supreme Court."

Cantil-Sakauye gave a preview of next week's Civic Learning California Summit in Sacramento, where she will join retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, state Senate President Pro tem Darrell Steinberg and California Secretary of State Debra Bowen to advocate for increased civic education, a subject she called her passion.

"My view is that our democracy is strengthened when people understand how it works," Cantil-Sakauye said. "It is my firm belief that we need to educate the world about the importance of civics and how the branches work and your role and opportunities you have as a citizen of California."

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