By Judy Lin, Associated Press
SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP)—California's top judge urged lawmakers on Monday to ensure equal access to justice by reinvesting in a court system that has been hit with years of budget cuts.
While California has the distinction of having the largest judiciary of any state, it has cut more out of its branch than any other, Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye told a joint session of the Legislature in her "state of the judiciary" report.
"I'm worried that California is on the wrong side of history in funding justice," she said. "And I believe that if we do not reinvest in justice, you will continue to see services to the public from the courts are cut or be eliminated or deeply restricted."
The head of the judiciary branch noted that the court budget has been reduced by more than $1 billion over the last five budget years, which has resulted in fewer courtrooms, higher fees and delayed repairs and construction on a number of buildings.
Since she was sworn in two years ago by former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, Cantil-Sakauye has been trying to make the case for restoring the courts' funding. California's system, which includes 58 trial courts, six courts of appeal and the Supreme Court, has about 2,000 judicial officers and 18,000 court employees.
This year, Gov. Jerry Brown's proposed budget takes $200 million from court construction funds as a way to postpone additional cutbacks. He also proposes delaying repayment of a $90 million court construction loan.
Cantil-Sakauye said that California spends about 1 percent of the state's general fund on its court system while other states typically spend 2 percent. She warned that as more courtrooms close and fees go up, fewer people will be able to access justice.
"I submit to you in the most diverse state in the union, that a penny on the dollar is insufficient to provide justice," she said.
Brown's finance spokesman, H.D. Palmer, said the governor has tried to maintain stable funding for the courts throughout the recession while other areas such as public schools and universities have endured deep cuts. Palmer said state grants to seniors and the disabled have been cut to their lowest levels since 1982 and that the state's welfare-to-work program has been cut to 1987 levels.
"What we have been able to do through a combination of fees and transfers is to keep operations stable," he said of the court budget.
Democratic lawmakers voiced support for the chief justice, saying they would like to restore funding to the trial courts. Assemblyman Bob Wieckowski, D-Fremont, chairman of the Assembly Judiciary Committee, said he would like restore $475 million by lowering the amount set aside for reserves in the governor's proposed budget.
"It's a multiyear challenge, but I think the call has gone out to stop the tidewaters from coming in," he said.
Yet Republican Sen. Jim Nielsen said the budget situation has not improved significantly enough to restore full funding.
"The courts, I think, are deserving of some improvement," said Nielsen, R-Gerber. "Full restoration we can't promise right now. The budget is not at all fixed."
Last month, the state judicial council voted to delay 11 courthouse construction projects in case none of that money is restored this year. The contingency plan comes after the council voted in January to indefinitely delay court construction in Sacramento, Nevada, Los Angeles and Fresno counties while money is being spent to replace a Long Beach courthouse damaged by an earthquake.
Throughout her 20-minute speech, the chief justice weaved the story of Clarence Gideon, a 50-year-old Florida man who was denied an attorney when he was accused of breaking into a pool hall and stealing cash. As a result of his appeal from his prison cell, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1963 that criminal defendants have a right to legal representation.
"To have your day in court, you need a courtroom," she said. "And I will say that what we once counted on, that courts will be open and ready and available to deliver prompt justice, is no longer true in California."
Cantil-Sakauye said some people in San Bernardino County have to drive two hours to get to court, and she warned of "unconscionable delays" in civil cases dealing with wrongful termination or discrimination, creating a crisis in civil rights.
Since 2010, the chief justice said 30 courts have cut hours, 22 courthouses have closed, 114 courtrooms have closed and 2,600 people have either been laid off or their positions have been left vacant through attrition.
This year, Fresno County will close seven courthouses and San Bernardino will close three, while Los Angeles County will close 67 courtrooms and eliminate 500 positions.
During a stop in Sacramento last week, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy said the political branches of government have an "absolute obligation" to make sure the judicial branch can function. He said trial courts have no way to control the number of cases coming in.