A chief justice’s lament in a legal history lesson


SAN FRANCISCO — California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, decrying the decimation of funding for state courts, gave lawmakers a brief lesson in legal history Monday during the annual State of the Judiciary address.

She recalled the case of Clarence Gideon, a poor, uneducated Florida man who was arrested in 1961 for breaking into a pool hall and stealing. He had no money for a lawyer, and the court would not give him one. Despite little evidence against him, Gideon was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison.

From his prison cell, Gideon wrote in pencil to the U.S. Supreme Court to ask for help. The court agreed to hear his case, and unanimously granted him a new trial — and a lawyer. A jury deliberated an hour before acquitting him.


Cantil-Sakauye told lawmakers at the state Capitol that the landmark case of Gideon vs. Wainwright, whose 50th anniversary is next week, not only ensured that all criminal defendants would have legal representation but stood as a reminder that courts were often the last resort for people.

“Justice requires a court,” she said, lamenting the closures of courts up and down the state because of budget cuts. “But what we once counted on — that courts would be open, available and ready to dispense prompt justice — no longer exists in California.”

During the last five years, California’s courts have lost 65% of their general funding. Many courts have closed. Hours have been cut, and court fees have skyrocketed. Only 1% of the general fund goes to California’s judicial branch, the largest court system in the nation, she said.

“I submit to you that equal access to justice for 38 million Californians cannot be had for a penny on the dollar,” the chief justice said in the televised address.

Because of court closures, some residents of San Bernardino County must drive two hours to get to a court, she said. Kings County resorted to holding a garage sale to try to raise money, she said. In Los Angeles, 67 courtrooms have been closed, and 500 court jobs have been lost.

The result has been “unconscionable delays” in getting a court date in civil matters, including divorce, contract disputes and discrimination cases, she said.

The situation is so dire that California, “normally a leader in social justice, may now be facing a civil rights crisis,” she said.

Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposed budget does not restore any of the lost funding, and the court system has had to postpone rebuilding dilapidated and unsafe courthouses. Rising fines and fees for filings threaten to make California’s court system “a user-fee institution” that particularly hurts those with lower incomes, she said.

Assemblyman Bob Wieckowski (D-Fremont), head of the Judiciary Committee, said after the address that he agreed there was a “a serious threat to the public’s access to justice.” He said funding must be restored as the economy improves to keep courts open.

Assemblyman Roger Dickinson (D-Sacramento) said Cantil-Sakauye “issued a clear and compelling call” for legislative help to keep the courts open. Senator Lou Correa (D-Santa Ana) said he found the state of the court system “sobering.”

Cantil-Sakauye noted that the court system, unified as a statewide branch 16 years ago, has had growing pains. She mentioned that judicial leaders, responding to a scathing state audit, scrapped a costly computer project that had been mismanaged and reduced the administrative office that oversees the courts by 30%.

She also promised to work with Brown to ensure that scarce dollars are allocated fairly to individual courts, whether they are located in rich counties or poor ones.

In closing, she asked lawmakers to remember Gideon, who died at the age of 61, living nine “law-abiding” years after getting out of prison. On his tombstone was a quotation from a letter he wrote his lawyer: “Each era finds an improvement in law for the benefit of mankind.”

“Think of Mr. Gideon,” she implored. “Justice for all.”