SACRAMENTO, Calif. (Legal Newsline) - California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Gorre Cantil-Sakauye says the state, including its court system, is facing "unprecedented challenges" brought on by the ongoing economic crisis.

Cantil-Sakauye, who was sworn into office as chief justice of the country's largest court system last year, is the first Asian-Filipina American and the second woman to serve as the state's highest-ranking justice.

In addition to her duties on the bench, she also chairs the Judicial Council of California, the administrative policymaking body of California's state courts, and the Commission on Judicial Appointments.

In her inaugural State of the Judiciary address to a joint session of the California Legislature Monday, Cantil-Sakauye noted that the first year of her tenure was marked by the single largest budget reduction ever to the judiciary.

At the same time, the court system has seen a 20 percent increase in filings in the past decade, she said.

"The branch is a huge, complex organization undergoing a transformation due in part to fiscal challenges but also because of the natural and welcome process of change," she told lawmakers.

But Cantil-Sakauye said the "cruel irony" is that the economic forces that have led to the court's budget reductions are the same ones that drive more residents to court.

"In times like these, after four successive years of severe reductions, we have 'closed' signs on courtrooms and clerks offices in 24 counties around the state. Several courts have been forced to implement staff layoffs; many more are planning layoffs," she said.

"We are already seeing worrisome and potentially dangerous delays in the resolutions of cases."

The chief justice admitted that the judiciary's shrinking budget has forced it to do more with less.

But new judicial positions are still "desperately needed" -- especially in the fast-growing areas of the Central Valley and the Inland Empire, she said.

"To honor and respect the laws signed by the governor, the judicial branch must be funded adequately and consistently," Cantil-Sakauye told lawmakers. "The promise of equal justice in California should not be illusory."

California's court system serves more than 38 million people -- about 12.5 percent of the total U.S. population.

The judicial branch's budget, which represents nearly 3 percent of California's budget, has seen reductions of close to 24 percent since 2008.

The court system is currently facing a $350 billion budget reduction.

The cut, passed by the Legislature and approved by Gov. Jerry Brown last year, is the deepest reduction in state court history.

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