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California's chief justice asks legislators to help rebuild courts

California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye warned Monday that the closure of budget-strapped courts has deprived more than 2 million residents of accessible justice and left the state “on the verge of a civil rights crisis.”

"A three-hour drive to the nearest courthouse can’t be fair in anyone's book,” Cantil-Sakauye planned to tell state lawmakers Thursday, according to a text of her speech released in advance.

California courts in the last several years have been cut by about $1 billion, and Cantil-Sakauye has been pleading with legislators to restore more funding next year. Her address stressed collaboration among the branches, and she asked lawmakers to help the courts recover from the losses.

She said court employees have not had a cost-of-living pay increase in seven years, and some courts, including the California Supreme Court, continue to furlough employees.

The budget cutbacks also have triggered long waits for trials in civil cases, including family law.

“As long as the branch is underfunded,” the chief justice said, “we will continue to see harmful and astonishing delays in civil redress for wrongful termination, discrimination, urgent family matters, foster care issues and personal injury.”

“It’s tragic that 50 years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, we are on the verge of a different type of civil rights crisis.”

Cantil-Sakauye outlined efforts by the judicial branch to create more fairness, including operating self-help centers for litigants without lawyers.

The branch created JusticeCorps, a national service program, 10 years ago to recruit and train college students and recent graduates to staff the help centers. Started in Los Angeles, the program has since been expanded to San Diego and Bay Area courts. JusticeCorps helped about 16,000 litigants in their native language last year, she reported.

Cantil-Sakauye also told lawmakers that the Judicial Council, the policy-making body for the courts, is working on a plan to ensure that court users who do not speak English have access to resources to help them navigate the system.

“Approximately 40% of Californians speak a non-English language at home, and over 200 languages and dialects are spoken in California,” she said, according to the transcript. “The need is immense.”

Gov. Jerry Brown has proposed to increase funding to the courts by $105 million next year, but Cantil-Sakauye has said the justice system needs $266 million more “just to tread water,” $612 million more to fully serve the public and $1.2 billion over three years to fully repair the damage.

She has warned that more courts might have to close and more employees be laid off unless the Legislature adds money to Brown’s budget.

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Twitter: @mauradolan

maura.dolan@latimes.com

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