SACRAMENTO (CN) – At her inaugural state of the judiciary address, California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye stressed the urgent need for the Legislature to restore funding to the state’s struggling courts while avoiding the thorny topic of disagreement among the state’s trial judges over how money should be spent.
“The Judicial Branch must be adequately and consistently funded,” she said Monday in the late afternoon.
The Assembly floor and gallery were packed with legislators, judges and attorneys. In her address, Cantil-Sakauye emphasized the budget crisis that has plagued the state’s trial courts for the last four years, resulting in total cuts over that period of $653 million.
“As courts are needed more, our resources are going down,” Cantil-Sakauye said.
Many Californians have turned to the court system in times of crisis, she added, bringing superior court filings to over 10 million last year. “The cruel irony is that the economic forces that have led to budget reductions to the courts are the same ones that drive more of our residents to court.”
“We have ‘closed’ signs on courtrooms and clerks offices in 24 counties around the state,” she continued. “Several courts have been forced to implement staff layoffs; many more are planning layoffs. It’s devastating on the hard working men and women of our courts. It’s also dangerous.”
The chief justice briefly touched on a costly IT project called the Court Case Management System that has divided California’s trial judges, with many referring to the project as a “fiasco” and a “boondoggle” that has diverted money away from trial courts trying to keep their doors open.
“I want to take a moment to acknowledge the role that the Legislature had in helping inform decisions about CCMS,” she said. “We know that CCMS works, but we face grim fiscal realities.” She said the Judicial Council which she heads will “be weighing its options in another week.”
After her speech, the chief declined to comment on an Assembly committee’s vote last week to halt spending on the project. “It’s something that will come up at the Judicial Council’s public meeting next week,” she said.
Cantil-Sakauye also avoided all talk of AB 1208, a bill intended to change the funding structure for the courts by ensuring that 100 percent of the money allocated to the trial courts by the Legislature actually goes to the trial courts. Cantil-Sakauye has strongly opposed to AB 1208, which is now pending in the state Senate.
She foretold the budget focus of her state of the judiciary speech at a gathering of California presiding judges in February. “I think the Senate understands that the branch needs to focus on budget,” she said at the time. “I think that most of the leadership in the Legislature knows we need to focus on budget. And so AB 1208 will sit for a while so we can focus on budget.”
In Monday’s state of the judiciary speech, the chief justice emphasized the need to balance local court needs with those of the central administration, and sent a message to the Legislature that the judiciary is a co-equal branch that will conduct its affairs on its own terms.
“We need a strong, inclusive, independent, impartial state judicial branch and a statewide platform to consider the needs of all Californians and to balance the many competing interests found in our branch,” she said. “Local courts and judges are eloquent and effective advocates for their local needs — as they should be. But the Judicial Council serves statewide concerns, just as the Legislature addresses issues of broad impact while cities and counties address those closer to home.”
The Chief Justice also told those assembled that she had taken a “fresh approach to governance.”
She has made Judicial Council meetings public and has given trial judges a platform to air their grievances. “If I can point to an overall characterization of my first year, it is bringing a fresh approach to governance of the judicial branch,” said the chief justice. “That means a new and different leadership, greater transparency and greater accountability, collaboration, and communication.”
“One of my first official acts was to survey all sitting judges through their presiding judges,” noted Cantil-Sakauye. “I asked for their perspectives on branch governance, and I invited their criticisms and recommendations.”
She said she received 200 pages of comments. “I listened, I read every word, I made action lists, we made changes and we continually make changes.”
Cantil-Sakauye highlighted a new program that will send a Judicial Council representative to each court to act as a liaison between the local courts and judicial leadership. She also said a full review of the Administrative Office of the Courts, an often-maligned central court bureaucracy, is forthcoming.
“I appointed judges and others to take a comprehensive look at the AOC, do we need to cut and where,” she said.
Cantil-Sakauye’s introduction was met with resounding applause from the audience. Her mother Mary, huband Mark and teen-aged daughters Hana and Clare were received with equal enthusiasm.
Toward the conclusion of her address, Cantil-Sakauye spoke of her mother’s vision that some day her daughter would pursue a legal career.
But the daughter never dreamed she would fulfill that vision by arriving on the Assembly floor, addressing the Legislature as California’s 28th chief justice.
“Long ago, my mother gave me the seed of her vision and I have brought it to fruition by being here today, in this, my first state of the judiciary,” she said. “I can tell you that the judiciary is undergoing a transformation, but that is an understatement.”