California chief justice warns of civil rights crisis from court cuts

California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye says the state's court system needs additional funding.
(Rich Pedroncelli / AP)

California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye told the Legislature on 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 one-way, three-hour trip to a courthouse can’t be fair in anyone’s book,” Cantil-Sakauye said in her annual address to state lawmakers.

California court budgets 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 told lawmakers that court employees have not had a cost-of-living pay hike 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, we will continue to see harmful and astonishing delays,” she said, citing civil disputes involving business, discrimination, employment, family matters, foster care and personal injury.

“It’s tragic that 50 years after the enactment of the Civil Rights Act, California faces a different type of civil rights crisis,” she said. “It is not about the law. It is about access to it.”

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 languages last year, she reported.

She also told lawmakers that the Judicial Council, the policymaking 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.

She said about 40% of Californians speak a language other than English at home, and more than 200 languages and dialects are spoken in the state.

“If you come to court, and you don’t have language access, you might as well not come at all,” Cantil-Sakauye said in the televised address.

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 employees be laid off unless the Legislature adds money to Brown’s budget.