Tough Times, Not Exactly Tough Talk

Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye
Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye

California’s top judicial officer, Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, in her first year on the job has presided over the single largest budget cut to hit the state’s judiciary.  So when she went to the folks who hold the state’s purse strings to make her first State of the Judiciary speech, you’d expect her to ask for more dough right up front.

She did, sort of.  She said that “to keep the promise of justice alive in California, we ask that the courts be fully funded.”

She told the joint session of the Legislature that the judiciary is 2.4 percent of the state budget, but has been hit with a 24 percent reduction since 2008, a cut of $653 million.  And she pointed out that came at a time trial court filings topped 10 million for the second consecutive year – a 20 percent increase over the last decade.

And she told them the courts “are struggling” and she called court delays “potentially dangerous” for the public.

The Chief Justice pointed out that courthouses have reduced hours and often now sport “closed” signs on courtroom doors and clerks offices in 24 counties out of 58.

Several courts have been forced to implement staff layoffs; many more are planning layoffs,” she told the lawmakers.

But she didn’t say where and how many.  Politicians want to know how it hits them in their district.

How much money does she want restored?  What would it take to bring courts back to normal hours?  Out of a court staff of 20,000, how many got pink slips?  And what services were lost?

She talked about the desperate need for new judges but also said the courts have learned to do more with less.  That doesn’t sound a compelling note for more money from an otherwise cash-strapped state.

She did not mention prison realignment and its potential to bring more cases to judges who now face the new obligation to hear probation revocations in greater numbers.

Then there is the money pit that is the court’s case management system.  Last year a blistering state audit found mismanagement of the giant technology system that has mushroomed from the original $260 million estimate in 2004 to over $1 billion.

Last week an Assembly committee voted to cut off funds for further deployment of the money hog for the time being.  But the Chief Justice quickly brushed by that with a couple sentences and no conclusions about the program’s fate.

She thanked them for the audit and said it has “informed decisions” of the Judicial Council in the last year.  Now, “we have a system that works.”  That’s not what the Legislature and even some of her own judges think.

She added that next week the Judicial Council will have a public meeting on the “grim fiscal reality,” adding that “we have a changed fiscal reality, changed landscape and reduced resources,” and they’ll make some decisions then about how to proceed.

In the end, she talked about the future, but not the future of the courts, rather the need to keep kids from being suspended or expelled from school so they don’t end up in the juvenile justice system down the road.

She did make an argument for the need for a statewide administrative hand to keep the big picture oversight of 58 diverse counties.  There has been a voice of dissention among some judges, particularly in larger more powerful counties, to curb the power of the AOC and return more administration to local county control.

Cantil-Sakauye said the judiciary structure, the tension between statewide oversight and local control has given the courts some of its best innovations.  And she credited the maligned case management system, CCMS, for the ability to fulfill some of this innovation.

Then she looked ahead.  She plans on bringing a program forward on civics education for schools in early 2013 and mentions her desire to push initiatives to expand mediation.

She said, “we must lead in the times we are given and we live in times of austerity.”

Maybe an initiative on financial education in the schools would be more appropriate for these times.

 

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