SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - In a meeting with reporters Monday, California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye addressed a sometimes contentious relationship between the courts and the other branches of government, the financial disparities between individual trial courts and the rhythm of the job.
The foremost topic of the press briefing was budget cuts to the courts and a recent meeting with Governor Jerry Brown on that issue. "The meeting with the governor was productive, it was congenial, it was pleasant, and it's preliminary," said the chief justice.
The chief justice said the principal item at the meeting was the question of whether the governor will go forward with plans to take $200 million from the trial courts' reserve funds in order to fund ongoing court operations. Those funds have used by trial courts to meet unexpected expenses and help get them through lean years.
The governor's Department of Finance last month proposed taking almost all that was left of those funds in the trial courts to help fund next year's overall court budget.
"We have to try to persuade Finance not to include this idea in the January 10th budget plan," said the chief justice. "We feel that once the concept is put into the Governor's budget plan it will be that much more difficult to persuade the Legislature and the Governor not to follow that course of action."
"It's critical, it's devastating to the trial courts," Cantil-Sakauye continued. "We already knew that fiscal year 13-14 would be incredibly difficult and we were seeking restoration, and if not restoration, at least no more further cuts. And we view this use of trial court fund balances to supplant general appropriations to the judicial branch as a cut."
"So it's very, very, very concerning," she concluded. "Courts are on pins and needles."
The year has been harrowing for the courts. Compounding the governor's funding news was the recent word from the Legislature that it will not put up any money for a costly courthouse in Long Beach -- forcing judges and administrators to come up with the promised funds from other courthouse projects.
In recent months, courts in San Joaquin, Fresno, San Bernardino and Los Angeles have announced staff layoffs and shuttered courtrooms.
Cantil-Sakauye said she has an "emotional response" every time she hears of another courtroom closure.
"It's unbelievable," she said. "Take San Bernardino; they'll be closing actual facilities, so people those communities once served will now have to drive three to four hours to get to court. And we're talking about people who don't have the kinds of resources where they can just get in the car and drive there. So the fact that that's happening in counties with such rural breadth like San Bernardino and Fresno really means we're denying those people their day in court."
"And in fact those two examples I brought up with the Governor and he was surprised to hear it and he was concerned about it," said the chief justice, "and we hope that has an impact on how he considers funding the branch."
Now entering her third year of piloting the judiciary through the narrows of California's fiscal crisis, Cantil-Sakauye said she is becoming acclimated to the round-the-clock nature of the job.