California Supreme Court chief justice: Budget cuts have put state courts near collapse

California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye
California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye

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The California Supreme Court’s chief justice gave her first “State of Judiciary” address Monday to a joint session of the Legislature in Sacramento.

Tani Cantil-Sakauye told lawmakers that their repeated budget cuts have put justice at risk in California.

She called it a “cruel irony” that the same economic forces that spurred lawmakers to cut spending for courts have driven more Californians to turn to the courts for help with evictions, debt collection and changes to child support agreements.

“As Californians lose their livelihood and as part of the dream slips away, they rightly come to courts seeking justice, protection and dignity," Cantil-Sakauye said. "But courts are struggling to provide that.”

The chief justice said courts have difficulty providing equal access to justice for about 38 million Californians on just 2 percent of the state budget. The courts are also struggling because Superior Court filings have jumped by 20 percent in the last decade, while state lawmakers were cutting court funding by 25 percent.

That’s more than $600 billion.

Cantil-Sakauye said several courts have been forced to lay off staff, and some courtrooms and clerks offices have closed. She warned that many more are heading that way with risky consequences.

“I give you an example," Cantil-Sakauye began. "A woman in a small rural county sought a temporary restraining order against a physically and sexually abusive boyfriend. But because that county had reduced hours, because it couldn’t operate to fit her schedule, she had to be turned away for the day. She spent the night in her car with her child rather than return home to her abuser."

She added that there were stories like that from all over the branch.

Cantil-Sakauye told lawmakers the judicial branch must be funded “adequately and consistently” to uphold the laws of the state for all its residents.

The chief justice also talked about the need for more judges to cope with rapid population increases in the Inland Empire and the Central Valley.

Cantil-Sakauye said she’ll work with schools to reduce dropout rates, pointing out that keeping kids in classrooms reduces the risk that they’ll commit crimes and end up in California’s juvenile justice system.