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Bench and bar leaders unite on
need for court funding

By Diane Curtis
Staff Writer

New State Bar President Jon Streeter and Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye spoke with one voice at the bar’s Annual Meeting last month in Long Beach, sending the message that court funding must be a top priority for both bench and bar.

Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye and State Bar President Jon Streeter

Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye and
State Bar President Jon Streeter

“I cannot overstate the gravity of this issue,” Streeter said in his inaugural speech after being sworn in by Cantil-Sakauye as the 87th president of the bar. “The quality of our justice system is being eroded, and once a phenomenon like this starts, it is hard to say where it will end.”

Sometimes, he said, “it takes a crisis to galvanize the forces of change, and I believe this is one of those times.” He noted that the scope and magnitude of the cuts are greater than ever experienced and will be felt “where the public will feel it the most” ― in the trial courts.

“The lives and physical safety of citizens are at stake all day every day in some of the court departments that are most vulnerable to closure,” he said. “Talk to any judge who has sat in a family law department. If we turn the courts into a dull and unresponsive instrument when dealing with the most difficult of human problems, we make our civilization meaner and more brutal.”

A partner at Keker & Van Nest in San Francisco who specializes in complex litigation, Streeter, 54, succeeds Bill Hebert as president for a one-year term.

In her first annual address to the State Bar, the chief justice called for a team effort to increase the judicial branch budget from its current 2.4 percent of the state’s general fund. “We have done our part, admirably and heroically with shrinking resources, trying to provide the same level service,” Cantil-Sakauye told an audience of judges and lawyers, as well as family and friends attending Streeter’s inauguration and the swearing-in of new members of the boards of the bar and the California Judges Association. “But the remedy doesn’t exist to fix the branch with 2.4 percent of the general fund.”

Her top priority, she said, is to keep the courts open, followed by strengthening the branch from within, building safe and accessible courthouses that include a user-friendly case management system and informing the public about the important work the bench and bar do to protect the rights of the public. All such efforts will require lawyers and judges to work together.

With his wife, mother, two daughters, two brothers and other family members in the audience, Streeter promised that the bar will be a leader in finding a solution to inadequate funding of the courts. “The bar has your back,” he told the chief justice. “We cannot stand idly by and see the vision of uniform justice for all Californians destroyed,” he said.

Ultimately, added Streeter, a graduate of Stanford University and UC Berkeley School of Law, he supports a constitutional ballot initiative “designed to fundamentally change how the justice system is funded” although shorter term solutions also are needed.

He warned that with severe underfunding of the courts comes the possibility of returning to an era in which the quality of justice is based on a person’s ability to pay, noting that the wealthy can always buy private justice, such as that provided by private judges. Streeter also warned that the bar and judicial branch must speak with one voice in seeking adequate funding for the courts. “Our message will not be effective if judges for whom we carry this message are perceived as divided,” he said.

A statewide steering committee of influential lawyers from throughout the state has been formed to draw up a set of proposals to address the need for stable, sufficient funding for the courts, both for the short and long term.