Daily Journal Profiles the Chief Justice

After a brutal start, chief justice assumes ‘affirmative posture’

By Paul Jones, Daily Journal Staff writer
Aug 21, 2013

black and white photo of chief justiceCopyright 2013 Daily Journal Corp. Posted with permission from the Daily Journal. Photo: Sam Attal / Special to the Daily Journal

SACRAMENTO - For years, the nation's largest state court system has been in a defensive posture, reacting to $1 billion in budget cuts with layoffs, reduced hours and court closures. But that may be about to change. After a token increase in funding in July, state Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye announced a set of proposals that she hopes will kick off an era of reconstruction for the branch.
In a recent interview, Cantil-Sakauye laid out her vision of a three-pronged push to increase access to courthouses, improve online services, and aggressively expand diversity initiatives, especially language assistance.

The time had come for an "affirmative posture," the chief justice told the Daily Journal. "We need to get back to what we do as a core branch: we develop access."

Cantil-Sakauye, who was sworn into office 2½ years ago, unveiled the push at the branch leadership's monthly meeting in July. Dubbing the renewed focus on services "Access 3D," she said the branch not only needed to restore what had been lost in the past few years, but evolve its approach to keep up with the times.

She has repeatedly urged state lawmakers to reinvest in the largest judiciary in the country, which has lost 65 percent of its general funding over the past five years. Countless courtrooms has been closed up and down the state, and court fees have skyrocketed. California spends only about 1 percent of its general fund on its court system, half of what other states typically spend, she's said.

The three-pronged push is intended to focus the branch's energies on addressing issues that range from new opportunities made possible by technology to new hurdles arising from the state's diverse population. The U.S. Department of Justice recently weighed in with an investigation calling on the judiciary to provide more interpreters in noncriminal matters. According to Cantil-Sakauye, Californians speak upwards of 200 different languages.

Changes to state law would be necessary to fund language assistance for civil cases, which will in turn require a dedicated effort by the branch with support from interpreter associations, she said. At the same time, the branch is pushing for the use of remote interpreter services using video as a way to match available interpreters to courtrooms anywhere in the state - a proposal largely opposed by the interpreters union. Cantil-Sakauye said the branch's chief operating officer, Curt Child, would be assigned to bring different constituencies together to create a plan that would address such issues and seek increased interpreter funding.

"We need to hear each other," she said. "We need to find out what the concerns are."

Representatives with the California Federation of Interpreters confirmed they'd been in recent talks with Administrative Office of the Courts staff. Cantil-Sakauye said she had reached out to the union before the July Judicial Council meeting.

Additionally, Cantil-Sakauye said the branch's technology committees will focus on improving remote access. That includes helping to expand online case filing and video appearances in courts - two initiatives already underway that can save people lengthy and expensive drives to court.

"We're going to concentrate on [remote access], make sure there's continuity and there's greater oversight," she said. The committees will determine "how can we keep it together, keep it on track to achieve e-filing, e-discovery, document management, and also pursue video appearances when appropriate."

Another access issue that must be addressed is court facilities, Cantil-Sakauye said. While one loss of physical access - the shuttering of courthouses - has come as a result of staffing cuts, some aging facilities themselves pose a burden to the public. Many older courthouses are cramped and unsafe, or built in locations that have become inconvenient as communities have changed. Many courthouses aren't fully accessible to the disabled.

However, addressing that problem requires confronting a prerequisite for serious progress on any part of the three-point plan: continued increases in funding.

Due to the recent passage of Proposition 30, a tax increase that has brought in significant revenue, Cantil-Sakauye said she was confident the state would at least refrain from further dipping into the already heavily tapped courthouse construction fund. The fund has been used for years to offset the cost of the branch's operations to the state, resulting in the paring down and outright suspension of numerous courthouse construction projects.

"I'm hoping we're over the days when the construction fund was used to backfill our reductions," she said. "But when we proceed, we'll be very cautious."

Her predecessor, Chief Justice Ron George, had pushed initiatives that were large, ambitious - and costly. A computer systems upgrade project to link courthouses in all 58 counties drew fire for its over $500 million price tag. Cantil-Sakauye and the Judicial Council last year terminated the California Court Management System, as it was formally known, because of the rollout cost of the finished system - estimated to be close to $1.9 billion.

Cantil-Sakauye said the Access 3D initiatives would be nimbler.

"We have to be prepared and flexible enough ... that if we need to scale back immediately, we can," she said.

Still, the push for improved access is based on the expectation that the courts are in line for increased funding to build on the additional $63 million it received this summer after half a decade of cuts totaling over $1 billion. But Cantil-Sakauye struck an optimistic note in light of the new allocation. She said the branch was well positioned to make the case it should receive more next year.

Much of that may result from reforms Cantil-Sakauye has spearheaded and supported. The branch has begun to overhaul its administrative office, which has drawn criticism from judges and legislators that it is inefficient and unaccountable to the judiciary. This fiscal year, it also began using a workload-based formula to allocate a portion of courts' funding, a move aimed in part at appeasing the governor's office.

Cantil-Sakauye said the push to increase access to court facilities and services would also help secure funding by laying out clearly how the branch intends to use it to benefit the public, for example, with remote access.

"We need a governance plan, we need a business plan," she said. "From there we go to the Legislature and the governor and say, 'We need this amount of money.'"

Copyright 2013 Daily Journal Corp. Posted with permission from the Daily Journal. Photo: Sam Attal / Special to the Daily Journal