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Chief: Recession spurred court innovations

By Amy Yarbrough
Staff Writer

The state’s judicial branch has been innovative in the face of drastic budget cuts brought on by the recession and continues to look for ways to improve its operations, California’s chief justice told legislators last month.

State of the Judiciary
Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye

Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye’s remarks, delivered March 23 during her annual State of the Judiciary address, focused on advocacy efforts by court leadership and judicial branch supporters since the start of the recession, cost-saving measures and new initiatives. Though her speech touched less on funding than ones she’s given in previous years, Cantil-Sakauye said the courts will need more help in the future.

Continuing the third year of new investments after five years of cuts, Gov. Jerry Brown has earmarked $3.7 billion for the judicial branch in his 2015-16 budget. The plan calls for, among other things, $19.8 million to make up for decreased revenue from fines and penalties and $90 million to boost court operations.

“But as you know, it’s not enough,” Cantil-Sakauye told lawmakers. “We fall short as is evidenced by our continued court closings, courthouse closures, reduced hours and our employees who are still, yes, on furlough.”

Since she became chief justice during the third year of the recession, Cantil-Sakauye said she personally logged 30,000 miles speaking to groups and lobbying for the courts before she stopped counting.

“I was overwhelmed by the response from attorneys, judges, community and bar associations who came forth as voice of the judiciary,” she added.

The recession also forced judicial branch leadership to find ways of becoming more efficient and trimming fat, Cantil-Sakauye said.

Shortly after becoming chief justice, Cantil-Sakauye appointed judges and court government experts to do a “top to bottom” evaluation of Judicial Council staff. She said the agency also looked internally for ways to be more efficient.

As a result, the Judicial Council’s staff has been cut by 30 percent, its education meetings have been opened to the public and a program to reduce court construction costs created.

In addition, the judicial branch has a new technology plan and a plan to better assist non-English speaking court users, one of the most comprehensive in the country.

“Language access is necessary in a place like California where approximately 40 percent of Californians go home at night and speak a language other than English,” she said. “Also, one out of every five who appear in court needs some language assistance.”

Among other innovations Cantil-Sakauye noted in her speech: a new statewide fiscal accounting system, additional self-help programs for litigants who come to court without attorneys and the use of online education programs for judges.

Along with those projects underway, Cantil-Sakauye said she continues to promote civics education, calling it “necessary to empower our future leaders.”

“Innovations mean very little if the public does not have trust or confidence or understanding of the work we do,” she said. “We have to pass on or, as youth say, download that information to the next generation.”