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Chief justice says Gov. Jerry Brown's budget for courts inadequate

SACRAMENTO -- With the state’s fiscal situation much brighter, the chief justice of California said Tuesday that Gov. Jerry Brown’s budget proposal is inadequate to repair damage to the judicial system caused by five years of deep cuts.

Brown has proposed to increase funding to the courts by $105 million next year, but Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye 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.

“I am grateful and appreciative of the governor’s budget for the judicial branch, but in all candor, meaningful justice requires more,” Cantil-Sakauye told reporters at a news conference on the steps of an Appeals Court building a block from the Capitol.

Past years’ cuts have resulted in the closure of 51 courthouses throughout California and 205 courtrooms, while another 30 courts have reduced public service hours, Cantil-Sakauye said, standing in front of more than 30 judges, court administrators, union officials, business representatives and key state lawmakers who supported a blueprint that does more to restore funding for the court system.

“We are rationing justice, and its become more than a fiscal problem,” Cantil-Sakauye said. “It is in my view now a civil rights problem. Because when you  can no longer guarantee timely access to justice, and you can no longer provide  litigants a courtroom in his or her community of his or her peers, then we know we are denying the protections of an American democracy.”

But, the chief justice said all court reserve funds are empty and the proposed budget would cause more harm.

“If the governor’s budget stays what it is, courts will begin looking at laying off and closing more courts and courthouses, because they have used their fund balances to backfill the previous cuts,” Cantil-Sakauye said in an interview with The Times.

Those supporting the chief justice’s call for more funding Monday included Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), Senate Judiary Committee Chairwoman Noreen Evans (D-Santa Rosa) and Assembly Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Wieckowski (D-Fremont).

“The courts deserve special consideration,” Steinberg said, noting the judicial branch is a co-equal branch of government with the Legislature. Steinberg is not committing to any specific budget figure, an aide said.

“As we consider restorations, as we consider that appropriate balance between paying down debt and putting money in a rainy day fund, which we must, let's not forget the people who depend upon what goes on behind these great structures, our courts,” Steinberg said.

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patrick.mcgreevy@latimes.com

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