Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye today urged the defeat of Assembly legislation that would undermine the authority of the Judicial Council, and give courts in as few as two counties authority to veto any statewide judicial project.
Cantil-Sakauye, who became chief justice in 2010, is showing herself to be a tough fighter as she lobbies to kill legislation by Assemblyman Charles Calderon, D-Whittier, himself the consummate inside player.
Appearing before The Bee's editorial board, Cantil Sakauye said Calderon's bill, AB 1208, would "reduce and eliminate the authority of the Judicial Council" to control significant parts of judicial branch spending.
As chief justice of the California Supreme Court, Cantil-Sakauye chairs the Judicial Council, which sets policy for courts statewide.
By far the bulk of the judicial branch's $3.1 billion, more than 83 percent, is spent on trial courts. But the Judicial Council uses some money for statewide projects, including installation of a computer system, which has faced significant cost overruns.
Cantil-Sakauye said that under AB 1208, as few as two counties could veto any statewide project, such as the computer system. She said the measure also could have the effect of limiting the counties' ability to set up special courts to hear criminal cases involving veterans or mentally ill defendants.
Cantil-Sakauye said there should be "equal public access, wherever you live, whether or not your county is wealthy and whether or not you have a good relationship with your county supervisors or presiding judge."
Siding with Cantil-Sakauye are presiding judges from 44 counties, a statewide association of defense lawyers, the big business-backed Civil Justice Association of California and the association's rival, the Consumer Attorneys of California, which represents plaintiffs' lawyers. Critics say the legislation raises separation of powers issues.
Backers include a group of judges, some of them from larger counties including Los Angeles and Sacramento, and the Service Employees International Union, which represents many court workers. The bill is headed to an Assembly vote on Monday.
Some judges have criticized the Judicial Council for overspending on projects such as the computer system, and for spending too much on the Administrative Office of Courts, which Cantil-Sakauye also oversees.
In an interview, Calderon criticized the Administrative Office of the Courts for having an out-sized bureaucracy and for spending money on, for example, a studio. The Legislature itself operates an extensive video and audio broadcast operation.
The Legislature has voted for budgets that have stripped the courts of $653 million during the past four years. As a result, counties have been forced to close during some days.
Calderon blamed mismanagement for the closures, saying, "It's the Legislature's responsibility to keep the courts open."
Photo of Cantil-Sakauye by The Bee's Paul Kitagaki Jr.. Photo of Calderon by The Bee's Randy Pench.