SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - California's chief justice has undertaken a campaign-style series of public hearings throughout the state making the case for restoration of the judiciary's budget after a massive $350 million cut last year. "I hope this hearing serves as a voice to let those who make decisions about our budget that we need adequate, stable funding," Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye said Tuesday.
At a hearing in the San Francisco headquarters of the Administrative Office of the Courts, she described the budget as a "monumental challenge and fight."
Tuesday's hearing was one of four being held throughout the state and organized by the State Bar of California, The California Commission on Access to Justice and business advocacy group CalChamber.
One hearing was held earlier this month at Pacific McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento and two more are scheduled in December at Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles and the U.C. Irvine School of Law.
As courts have been forced to reduce hours, lay off employees and close courtrooms, Cantil-Sakauye has argued that the legislature must restore funding to the judicial branch. "The rule of law is sometimes forgotten in discussions about our budget," she said. "When we're not open or our hours are reduced, what we see is a diminution of the rule of law, which I say is our birthright."
State Bar president Jon Streeter's remarks were in line with the chief's. "Without a reliable system of justice, law is an ideal, not a reality," he said. "Only with a properly functioning justice system can law be evenly applied. Its functions should not be dispensed with when resources are limited."
While the chief justice has made made it clear that her plan to save the courts will rely heavily on lobbying for increased funding, the Legislative Analyst's Office revealed in mid-November that the state has taken in $3.7 billion less in revenue than expected, triggering $2 billion in additional cuts to programs and services. The Legislative Analyst further projected that the state will face a $13 billion shortfall between now and next fiscal year's budget.
Yet Cantil-Sakauye still has the enthusiastic support of State Senator Noreen Evans (D-Santa Rosa), who noted that budget cuts tend to "fall very strongly on the judiciary." Evans, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, received a big round of applause when she said, "We can't have a functioning democracy without a functioning judiciary."
At the hearing, witnesses testified to long lines and diminished services to impoverished litigants, many of whom rely on legal aid provided by the courts.
Appellate Justice James Lambden spoke of lines so long at the Wiley Courthouse in Oakland that people are told to come back the next day when they finally reach the door. People in line at the clerk's office in Contra Costa County "begin to stamp their feet and shout 'open a window, open a window,' to the point that security becomes nervous," Lambden said.
He noted that the judicial branch faces a loss of $650 million next year. "The regressive impact will hurt the least fortunate most of all," Lambden said.
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