Video: 2014 State of the Judiciary Address

for release
Contact: Cathal Conneely, 415-865-7740
March 17, 2014
State of the Judiciary Address

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22:08


Thank you, Speaker Pérez and also President Pro Tem Steinberg. I thank you for inviting me to once again to address the state of the judiciary.

It's an honor to be here with my colleagues on the California Supreme Court.

I'd like to take a moment of personal privilege to recognize and congratulate Justice Joyce Kennard on her 25 years on the California Supreme Court and her retirement from our bench.

And just a few words on that. I'd like to say first that Justice Kennard is an extraordinary jurist and a wonderful mentor, role model, and friend. She’s also a private and modest person who does not want me up here saying these things, but I'm going to anyway.

I'll also say that Justice Kennard came here as an immigrant, worked her way up to become an attorney, and then through the courts— municipal court, superior court, the appellate court, and the California Supreme Court. She possesses uncommon intellect, integrity, and courage. I speak for all of us when I say, we’ll miss you, Justice Kennard, and thank you.

It's a pleasure to be here with members of the Legislature, as well as my colleagues from the Courts of Appeal, superior courts, and the Judicial Council.

I'm happy to see attorneys from the State Bar, the Bench Bar Coalition, and the Open Courts Coalition, and of course, the executives from the AOC.

And I'm grateful that my family is here: My husband, Mark, our daughters, Hana and Claire, my in-laws, and my mother, Mary Cantil.

This occasion causes me to think about two values that our branches have in common, and that is fairness and collaboration. And how those values inspire us and connect us all in service to the public.

So let me give you an example. As you know, this year marks the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act. This Act, as you know, prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, sex, religion, and national origin.

This Act was the first significant civic legislation after the Civil War after Reconstruction.

And I would argue that this Act has transcended the law and it's become part of our core values, our principles; it's in our DNA, it's our heritage.

And for me and my family, this act is beyond historic, it’s personal. But it was also the fair thing and the right thing to do, and it required collaboration.

Congress created the Act; the president signed it into law. But it also took collaboration with the federal judicial branch, because that branch was set up to hear challenges and to test the law and to be the final arbiter of its constitutionality.

And it didn't take long for the test to come. Why, because laws once enacted are not self-executing. They are applied to people, and its meaning is challenged, and that challenge leads you to court, and in court the law is tested.

Well, the Civil Rights Act was tested very soon by a motel owner in Atlanta who argued that the law forced him to rent to African-Americans. He argued that the law was unconstitutional. He argued that Congress had no authority to force him to rent rooms to blacks. He also argued that the Civil Rights Act violated the 13th amendment, the law that abolished slavery. Because according to him, he argued that he was forced into involuntary servitude because he was required to rent to Blacks.

Well, it didn't take long, frankly, for the United States Supreme Court to dispense with those arguments and uphold the constitutionality of the law. It was the fair thing to do and it was the right thing to do. And that's how an effective democracy works—all three branches in collaboration.

Congress or the Legislature creates the bill, the executive branch signs it into law, and the judicial branch interprets that law as it is applied to people.

Even two hundred years ago, as Alexander Hamilton said in The Federalist Papers, “Laws are a dead letter if courts are not there to expound and define their true meaning and operation.”

As it was two hundred years ago, so too, is it today.

And we commemorate significant acts like the Civil Rights Act because those are anniversaries that remind us that we cherish fairness and we respect fairness. In fact next month, President Obama and three former presidents will travel to Texas to the Lyndon B. Johnson Library to commemorate the history of the Act.

Now, we cherish fairness; we respect fairness; and fairness was the topic of a short but inspirational film by the National Association of Women Judges. It’s online; it's about seven minutes; I urge you to watch it.

And this film makes the point that nowhere in the Constitution will you find the word fair. But it argues our founding fathers created a branch of government devoted entirely to fairness: the judicial branch.

But fairness animates all of us here. And in order for fairness to be true and accessible, great things require collaboration.

And that's what I want to talk to you about today.

I want to talk to you about some of the branch’s collaborative projects that we seek to do to achieve fairness, and the first is collaborative courts. Those are also called problem-solving courts. California has been a leader in developing these kinds of courts for many years.

And as you know, these courts strive to achieve a different outcome for victims, communities, and defendants. They seek tangible results, like safer families and getting veterans back on their feet.

Seventeen years ago, when I was a superior court judge in Sacramento, I started one of the first collaborative courts dedicated to the prevention of family domestic violence. Seventeen years ago: that's how long these courts have been around.

But these courts are only successful because of collaboration.

The Legislative support; the executive support in grant funding; the local county, community programs that support the folks who go through these collaborative courts; the lawyers and public law enforcement for their expertise; and the judges and staff at the AOC that help develop these projects and facilitate best practices, so these courts need not reinvent the wheel every single time they operate.

Another collaborative project that the branch works on to achieve fairness are the self-help centers. Just like the name sounds, self-help centers are located in courts to help people who come to court with a problem, but without an attorney. These courts last year helped over a million people of all economic levels, cultures, ethnicities, and in their native language.

And 17 years ago, in 1997, there was only one self-help center in California.

But thanks to a collaboration with you, the Legislature, and the executive branch, and the Judicial Council, we now have over 100 of these kinds of courts. One in each of our 58 trial courts.

And self-help centers also make courts efficient, because they prepare a self-represented litigant for his day in court on critical issues. And what it means is that by the time that self-representative litigant gets to court his paperwork or her paperwork is in order, and they know what to expect.

So it permits the judge to focus on fixing the problem instead of fixing the paperwork.

And these only work because of collaboration, not only with government, but the self-help attorneys, pro bono and legal aid attorneys, as well as the volunteers who staff the self-help centers.

And speaking of the volunteers who help staff the self-help centers, I'd like to mention JusticeCorps. JusticeCorps is a unique national service program. It started when the AOC obtained a grant in Los Angeles to start JusticeCorps. It's been so successful we’ve expanded it to San Diego and Bay Area courts.

And this is what JusticeCorps is and what it does: It goes to our state campuses, and it recruits students and graduates to staff and volunteer in the self-help centers. It takes about 250 of these recruits. Seventy percent of them are bilingual.

And they help people who have problems in court. They help prepare people for court, and last year helped 16,000 people in their native language actually navigate the courts.

So JusticeCorps is in its 10th year; it's their 10-year anniversary. And I only want to say happy birthday, and that the fact that they're called JusticeCorps makes them sound like they're super heroes. Which they kind of are, in my view, because they help people understand the judicial system and find their way through it.

And it reminds me that the judicial system’s strength relies on the public’s understanding of us.

So I want to tell you a little bit now about the work that's done on that front. As a judge, as a justice, and as a Chief Justice I've been promoting democracy and how it works to the public for many years. Every year now, for many years, I dutifully attend Ms. Cooperman’s seventh grade class at Sutter Middle School in Sacramento to talk about democracy and how the branch fits into that.

As Chief Justice now, I have the opportunity to visit high schools and colleges and law schools to talk about the three branches, and to talk about democracy, and how the judicial branch works with its sister branches.

I'm grateful to Superintendent Tom Torlakson for our partnership in civics K through 12, as well as what we call our Civics Learning Award. We’re in our second year of partnership, and we have an award that we give out to public high schools that have made civic learning a priority. And this year like last year, I will go to visit those schools to bestow the award upon them.

And when I go there, I like to tell them how we all work together, and how it is that we have a judicial branch that’s 17 years young. And I tell them that the reason we’re 17 years young is because, with the help of the Legislature and the executive branch and the voters, we were able to condense and transition from over 220 disparate courts into 58 efficient superior courts. And still be the largest judicial branch in the country and the largest law train judiciary in the world.

And when I tell them about this, I also look at the students, and I look at the ratio of the class and I think to myself that civic learning includes civic engagement about keeping kids in school. And that's another project that we in the branch are working on: keeping kids in school and out of court.

Last year, I shared with you some data that you are all familiar with now that indicate suspensions and expulsions—these kinds of exclusionary disciplinary policies—fall heaviest on minority children. That is African-American students, American Indian students, foster students, and disabled students.

We also know that a child who is suspended or expelled is more likely to enter the juvenile justice system, and from there, the adult criminal justice system. And we can’t sit idly by and look at these numbers and try not to get involved somehow to make things better.

And so I asked a group of jurists and the AOC to find some grant funding and bring together some stakeholders—multi-disciplinary teams of teachers, juvenile court judges, probation, law enforcement, social workers—to gather together at our respective county tables and talk about solutions and best practices and what's needed to change and improve the outcomes for these students.

In December, we held a summit called, "Keeping Kids in School and Out of Court," and over 32 disciplinary teams of 8 to 10 came to Anaheim, out of the 58 counties, and we presented to these groups of people talking about—for the first time—talking together about solutions for students.

And I thank Superintendent Tom Torlakson, Attorney General Harris, President Pro Tem Steinberg, Assemblymember Dickinson for coming to that summit, presenting to those teams, and inspiring them to do more and better.

I spent a few moments now telling you about some of our onward, outgoing programs that are struggling a bit but are still persevering. What I want to talk about next are some of our developing, introspective policies and programs.

As a public official, I feel that it's important to regularly self-assess, “Are we doing it right?” I firmly believe the status quo can always be improved.

And so in 2011 when I was the new Chief Justice, I immediately tasked a group of jurists, retired and also currently sitting, as well as experts on courts and experts on government, to come together, volunteer, and to do a top-to-bottom programmatic evaluation of the AOC, our staff agency. Now, that wasn't an easy thing to do, because the AOC serves as the staff to the California Supreme Court, the Courts of Appeal, the Habeas Corpus Resource Center, trial courts on a needed basis, as well as the Judicial Council. And also the AOC staffs our 22-plus advisory committees that make recommendations to the Judicial Council.

Well, this group of volunteers took over a year, and they delivered to the Judicial Council over a hundred directives on recommendations that we could do to improve. The Judicial Council accepted those directives, and of the 151 that were made, we are seventy percent completed of those directives.

There's also a new rule being contemplated by the judicial branch. Based on interest expressed last year, I asked the five internal committee chairs of the Judicial Council to accelerate or speed up our open meeting rule. The rule being contemplated now will be likely the most transparent judicial branch open meetings rule in the country.

And I can guarantee two outcomes. One, for some the rule won't go far enough. And for others the rule goes too far. But we're working on that balance. It's our first time out. It'll be our first year, for the largest branch, the California judiciary, and also the most transparent. But we're working on it.

I'm also gratified to tell you about something that's developing now in open meetings, in regional meetings across the state, and that is our California Language Access Plan. Forty percent of Californians speak a different language other than English at home. We also know in California over 200 different languages and dialects are spoken.

And if you come to court and you don't have language access, you might as well not come at all, if you cannot understand what the self-help centers or JusticeCorps is trying to help you to prepare your case, or what the judge may say.

So we have in the developing stages a comprehensive language access plan for California. And I'm understanding that that plan may come to council in December for all to review and for us to work on improving.

In addition to those projects, we have new responsibilities in the judicial branch under criminal realignment. These are new laws and so to that end, we've created in the AOC a specific division devoted entirely to criminal justice court rules and laws and issues. And this division in the AOC is tasked with researching, educating, and training judges and staffers on all the new laws under criminal realignment.

They take data, they take surveys, and they share best practices. They give legal advice, and next month, in April, the Judicial Council will have an open meeting on a presentation of criminal realignment bringing together counties, sheriffs, the executive branch, and the judicial branch to talk about criminal realignment—where it's working, where it may not be working, and how to improve that. And I urge you to listen to that April meeting, where we have this public discussion and presentation of criminal realignment in California.

The next phase of self-assessment will be—funding allowable—a commission on the future of the branch. This commission needs to take a hard look at the dynamics of the legal system and how to improve them to make them more efficient, but also balancing due process.

Just like the bill supported by the California Judges Association to reduce peremptory challenge in misdemeanors, the commission will be looking at balancing equities, due process, and interests in changing the dynamics of the legal system. Justice Carol Corrigan has agreed to head up our commission.

Now many of you keen listeners out there may notice that I have not said anything yet about fully funding the judicial branch. But let me just say this: we have a lot of catching up to do. And we want to be a partner in fair and collaborative solutions. Just like we were a partner in the last five years, in reductions and those solutions, to approximately one billion dollars to the judicial branch and approximately $450 million ongoing cuts.

And my Three-Year Blueprint for a Fully Funded Judicial Branch lays out our costs. And it also is a reminder that court closures have deprived at least two million Californians access to a local court. And a one-way, three-hour trip to a courthouse can't be fair in anyone's book.

And as you know, the reductions have fallen hardest on the processing of civil cases. And so we face astonishing and harmful delays in urgent family matters, in business contracts, wrongful termination, discrimination cases, personal injury cases—across the board.

Nevertheless, we continue to persevere. But it's tragic that fifty years after the enactment of the Civil Rights Act, California faces a different type of civil rights crisis. It's not about the law. It's about access to it.

And as you know, we will continue to persevere and do all that we can and provide the justice that we can, even though the Supreme Court, Courts of Appeal, Habeas Corpus Resource Center, and the AOC are on our fifth year of furlough, still. And some trial courts are still on furlough. Kings County has furloughed its employees in this fiscal year 21 days a year. And while most of the state public workers have or will receive a very modest COLA (cost-of-living adjustment), judicial branch public workers have not received a COLA in seven years.

As I began my address to you I talked to you about fairness and collaboration, and how those values connect us and inspire us in service to the public. And those are the same values that inspired the Civil Rights Act.

And we can trace the Civil Rights Act movement directly to the work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. A few months before the president introduced the Act, Dr. King sat in jail in Birmingham. He was being criticized by his fellow clergymen for bringing the civil rights movement to Birmingham, and Dr. King wrote them a letter.

And in the letter he said this, famous quote: "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in a network of inescapable mutuality. We are tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly."

And I would argue that that quote, 50 years later, is relatable to the three branches of government and how we operate, and how we collectively serve the public.

I thank you for your time and Happy Saint Patrick's Day.

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