California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye implored the Legislature on Monday to better fund the court system, tying the issue to a basic guarantee of justice.
In her second State of the Judiciary speech, Cantil-Sakauye spoke repeatedly of the landmark Gideon v. Wainwright case, in which the United States Supreme Court established the right to counsel for defendants who couldn't afford a lawyer. Ongoing cuts imperil the Gideon precedent that all Americans get a fair chance in court, Cantil-Sakauye said.
"To have your day in court, you need a court room," Cantil-Sakauye said. "And I must 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."
As yawning budget deficits became commonplace over the last few years, the court system was repeatedly asked to absorb deep cuts. Cantil-Sakauye has spoken often about the consequences for an overburdened justice system, a central theme of her State of the Judiciary speech last year.
Cantil-Sakauye's speech on Tuesday contained similar warnings. She invoked a list of slated courthouse closures and pointed to reduced staffing, buildings fallen into disrepair, heightened court fees and longer delays for cases. The Judicial Council, which sets policy for the court system, has voted to delay more than a dozen construction projects in recent months.
But the ground has shifted since 2012. Now that the voters have ratified Proposition 30, a ballot initiative that increases the California sale tax and raises income taxes for the state's wealthiest residents, an expected surge of new revenue appears to put California on firmer fiscal footing.
Given that sunnier budget outlook, Cantil-Sakauye has urged Gov. Jerry Brown to restore some funding to the judicial system. Brown's 2013-2014 budget proposes a $200 million reduction and asks the courts to offset it by dipping into judicial reserves.
"I worry that California is on the wrong side of history in funding justice, and I believe that if we do not reinvest in justice, you will see or will continue to see services to the public from the courts are cut or eliminated or deeply restricted," she said.
Some judges have assailed the court system's centralized authority, the Administrative Office of the Courts, for acting with a heavy hand and spending inefficiently. A May 2012 report commissioned by Cantil-Sakauye echoed those calls for reform, saying the AOC has "become dysfunctional in many ways" and strayed from its primary role of administering California's trial courts.
Cantil-Sakauye pointed to some of the progress the AOC has made, citing a costly computer system project officials decided to scrap, a series of open meetings and a review of trial court funding. But she said that tightening up practices can only go so far.
"No amount of efficiencies that we implement will ever make up for a billion dollar cut," she said, referring to the cumulative cuts of the last few years.
PHOTO CREDIT: California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye on Thursday, Feb. 21, 2013 in Sacramento, Calif. Lezlie Sterling for the Sacramento Bee.