SACRAMENTO, Calif. (Legal Newsline) - California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Gorre Cantil-Sakauye, and others, spoke to state lawmakers Monday about the effect of recent budget cuts to the public's access to justice.
The chief justice addressed a joint hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee and the Senate Budget and Fiscal Review Committee, Subcomittee No. 5 on Corrections, Public Safety and the Judiciary.
"We in the judicial branch accept our responsibility to help address the state's ongoing fiscal crisis," she said. "But we also are mindful of our duty to ensure that 38 million Californians are assured their rights under our constitution, that businesses and residents are provided lawful means to settle disputes, and that those accused of crimes are prosecuted fairly and expeditiously."
Cantil-Sakauye's comments came before an informational hearing, "Public Access to Justice in the Wake of Budget Cutbacks."
Advocates of justice reportedly gathered on the steps of the capitol Monday to decry the impending budget crisis.
The judicial branch's budget, which represents nearly 3 percent of California's budget, has seen reductions of nearly 30 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.
According to the Judicial Council of California Courts -- the policymaking body of the state courts -- cuts have been offset in the past by so-called "one-fixes," including tapping local reserves, fund transfers, fee increases, service reductions and court closures.
State Sen. Lori Hancock, an Oakland Democrat, told fellow lawmakers they must approve new revenue, or else the courts will face additional cuts.
"The courts are our third branch of government and ultimately, where access is delayed, justice is denied," she said Monday.
According to the Judicial Council, cuts that began in the 2009-10 budget resulted in courts being closed one day a month.
Subsequent cuts have resulted in 25 counties reducing court staffing and services.
Because of continued cuts, some counties have had to close courtrooms entirely, including the San Diego Superior Court, the San Joaquin Superior Court and the Ventura Superior Court.
Meanwhile, some have closed entire court branches, including Butte, San Joaquin, San Luis Obispo, San Diego, Sonoma and Stanislaus counties.
Self-help and family law assistance services also have been reduced or closed in courts throughout the state, according to the council.
"Our justice system is the cornerstone of our democracy," Jon Streeter, president of the California Bar Association, said Monday.
"It is a grave mistake to treat it like an executive branch agency and downsize it for expedience it in troubled economic times. The independence of the judiciary is at stake."
Cantil-Sakauye already expressed her concerns about the budget to lawmakers in her inaugural State of the Judiciary address in March.
"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 them at the time.
The chief justice said the "cruel irony" is that the economic forces that have led to the 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."
From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.