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Chief justice laments historic cuts to California court system

By Amy Yarbrough
Staff Writer

Using the landmark U.S. Supreme Court Gideon v. Wainwright case as a backdrop, Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye urged lawmakers in Sacramento last month to restore funding to the judicial branch – or risk jeopardizing access to justice in California.

Justice Cantil-Sakauye - Judicail Council
Members of the Judicial Council of California, the policy-making body for the judicial branch, and the Bench-Bar Coalition stand on the balcony as the Chief Justice enters the Assembly Chamber — Photo courtesy of the California Judicial Branch.

Cantil-Sakauye’s annual State of the Judiciary address delivered to the Legislature on March 10 came just days before the 50th anniversary of the case, which guaranteed that all criminal defendants have access to a lawyer, regardless of their ability to pay for one.  The case continues to teach us about the importance of attorneys to the justice system, Cantil-Sakauye said, and also “something as fundamental as how necessary a courtroom is as a forum for justice.

“To have your day in court, you need a courtroom.  And I will say that what we once counted on, that courts would be open and ready and available to deliver prompt justice, is no longer true in California,” Cantil-Sakauye told legislators.  “Although California has the distinction of being the largest judiciary in the country, we also have the dubious distinction that our judicial branch budget has been cut greater and deeper than any other in the United States.”

In the last five years, the judicial branch’s budget has been cut by roughly $1 billion, forcing courts to reduce their services and shutter courtrooms.  Gov. Jerry Brown did not call for any operational cuts in his 2013-14 budget proposal, but has targeted $200 million set aside for court construction projects.

Using court construction money to stave off further trial court cuts will mean that courthouses in need of repair or replacement will remain neglected, Cantil-Sakauye said. Although increased court fines and fees have also helped prevent “catastrophic” court closures, their long term impact could be very detrimental, she said.

“All of us are concerned that the higher fines and higher penalties are falling on those least able to afford it,” she said. “I worry that California is on the wrong side of history in funding justice.”

State Bar President Patrick Kelly, who attended Cantil-Sakauye’s address, said the chief justice did a great job of outlining the risks posed to the justice system as well as the long-term damage underfunding of the courts could have on Californians. The chief justice also challenged the Legislature “to give the justice system the highest priority in funding decisions lest we lose the justice Californians have come to rely upon,” he said.

Kelly said restoring court funding should be “our highest priority.”

“We, as members of the bar, have a duty to support measures that guarantee access to our courts.    Because we have been the beneficiaries of such a comprehensive court system in the past, it is easy to forget how integral it is to our daily lives,” he wrote in an email. “However, every right we have is meaningless unless there is a prompt and responsive justice system available to enforce those rights.”

Kelly also spent time in Sacramento meeting with state lawmakers as a member of the Open Courts Coalition, a volunteer group made up of litigators from both the plaintiffs’ and defense bars. He said the elected officials seem to understand what’s at stake in the court-funding crisis.

In her speech, Cantil-Sakauye noted that since 2010, 30 courts have reduced their hours of operation, 22 courthouses have closed and 114 courtrooms shut their doors. Los Angeles County has plans this year to close 67 courtrooms, eliminate 500 positions and shutter the largest alternative dispute resolution department in the nation.  Court employees in Kings County even went so far as to hold a garage sale this year to raise money for the court, she said.

Cantil-Sakauye finished with the story of Clarence Gideon, the plaintiff in the historic Gideon case who was falsely accused of burglarizing a Florida pool hall, but was went to jail anyway because he was too poor to hire an attorney. At his first trial, Gideon was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison.  Doing his own research, Gideon petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court and was granted a second trial, where an attorney was able to help him with his ultimate acquittal.

Gideon died a free man a few years later, Cantil-Sakauye told legislators, reading a quote from Gideon’s gravestone taken from a letter he wrote to his lawyer.

“It says each era finds an improvement in law for the benefit of mankind. That’s the faith Mr. Gideon had in government,” Cantil-Sakauye said. “As you, the decision makers, sort through all the pressing needs of the state I urge you to reinvest in justice. I urge you to think about the judicial branch and the forum for justice that it provides to interpret and enforce the laws that you pass. Think of Mr. Gideon, think of justice for all.”