State of the Judiciary March 2014

March 17, 2014, 4 p.m.

(This is the speech as prepared. The Chief Justice didn’t use notes, so the actual remarks were slightly different. The address as delivered will be posted shortly.)

Good afternoon Speaker Pérez and President Pro Tem Steinberg—thank you for inviting me to address the state of the judiciary.

It is an honor to be here with the entire state Supreme Court: my fellow justices
Justice Kennard,
Justice Baxter,
Justice Werdegar,
Justice Chin,
Justice Corrigan, and
Justice Liu.

I take a moment of personal privilege to recognize and congratulate Justice Kennard on her retirement. She is an extraordinary jurist and wonderful mentor, role model, and friend.

Justice Kennard came to this country as an immigrant, worked her way up to a lawyer to judge—through the municipal court, the superior court, the appellate court and to the Supreme Court. She is a person of uncommon courage, integrity, and intellect. Thank you Justice Kennard, we will miss you.

It is also a pleasure to be here with members of the Legislature, my colleagues from the courts of appeal, superior courts, and the Judicial Council.
I am happy to see attorneys from the State Bar, Bench Bar Coalition, and the Open Courts Coalition and the executives from the AOC—the staff agency to the Judicial Council.
And I am grateful that my family, including my husband, Mark, and our two daughters, Hana and Clare, are here.
This occasion reminds me of two values our branches have in common: fairness and collaboration, and how those values inspire us and connect us, all in the name of service to the public.
Let me give you an example. As you know, this year marks the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act.
This was the first significant civil rights act since Reconstruction, after the Civil War. The Act outlaws discrimination on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. The Act has transcended the law and has become part of our value system. The Act is not very old, yet we consider it part of our heritage—it’s in our DNA.
For me and my family, the Act is not only historic, it is personal. The Civil Rights Act was the right thing to do—because it was the fair thing to do.
But, it took collaboration. The Act was created by Congress and signed by the President. That’s collaboration. But it also took collaboration with the third branch, the federal judicial branch, to hear challenges to the law and to be the final arbiter of its constitutionality. After all, a law once enacted is not self-executing. A law is applied to people; its meaning can be challenged, and that challenge leads to court—where the law is tested.
For the Civil Rights Act, it didn’t take long for the test to come from a motel owner from Atlanta. Why? He refused to rent rooms to African Americans. He argued that Congress had no authority to force him to rent to blacks. He also argued that the act also violated the 13th Amendment—the law that abolished slavery. According to him, the Civil Rights Act forced him into involuntary servitude because it took away his freedom not to rent to black people.

Well it didn’t take long for the United States Supreme Court to dispense with those arguments.

The court did the right and fair thing and upheld the constitutionality of the Civil Rights Act.

That's how the three branches of government work in a democracy—the Legislature creates the bill, the executive branch signs the bill into law, and the courts interpret the law as it is used in people's lives. To be an effective democracy, we rely on each other.
As Alexander Hamilton said in The Federalist Papers, laws are a dead letter without the courts to expound and define their true meaning and operation. So, as it was two hundred years ago in the time of Hamilton, so too it is today.
We commemorate significant anniversaries like this in our shared history because we cherish fairness. In fact, next month three former presidents will join President Obama at the LBJ presidential library in Texas to commemorate the history of the Act.

Fairness was recently the topic of a short but inspirational film sponsored by the National Association of Women Judges. I urge you to view it online.

The film makes the point that the word “fair” is nowhere found in the Constitution but argues that our Founding Fathers created one branch devoted to fairness, the judicial branch.

However, the pursuit of fairness animates all of us here. But, if fairness is to be true and to be accessible, it requires collaboration. And I would argue that California has led the nation in living up to the Civil Rights Act and fairness.

In the next few minutes, I will describe for you some of the branch’s collaborative projects that seek to achieve fairness.

For example, collaborative justice courts—also called problem-solving courts—strive to improve outcomes for victims, defendants, and communities, and to achieve tangible results—by making families safer and getting veterans back on their feet.

For many years the California judicial branch, with the assistance of the AOC, our staff, has been a leader in voluntarily creating collaborative courts. In fact, 17 years ago, when I was a superior court judge, I started one of the first courts dedicated entirely to the prevention of domestic violence. That’s how long these types of courts have been around.

I know that these courts are successful because of the collaboration with executive branch agencies for grant funding, county and community and local government support for programs, the bar and the public attorney offices for their legal expertise, and the judges and staff for their devotion and dedication.

These courts cannot succeed without collaboration.
Another example is the self-help centers. These centers serve more than a million Californians every year who come to court with a problem and without a lawyer.  In 1997, there was only one self-help center in the state. But because of our statewide administration of justice, and the Legislature's support and funding, there are now more than 100 self-help centers—including one in each of our 58 trial courts.

These centers help court users—of all economic levels, of all cultures, ethnicities, and languages—figure out how to resolve critical life issues. These centers also help the judges and staff because they help prepare a self-represented litigant for a meaningful day in court, permitting the judge to focus on fixing the problem rather than fixing the paperwork.
Because of the work of the self-help lawyers, pro bono aid, legal services and volunteers, and the AOC, California’s leadership is a model of excellence for other states.

Related to the self-help centers is the Judicial Council-sponsored program JusticeCorps, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year.
JusticeCorps is the only national service program of its kind. It started in Los Angeles with a grant acquired by the AOC. JusticeCorps recruits and trains more than 250 college students and recent graduates each year to support our self-help centers. It has been so effective in Los Angeles that it has been expanded to San Diego and to Bay Area courts.
Members are recruited from our state's diverse campuses and about 70 percent of them are bilingual. Last year JusticeCorps members provided assistance to approximately 16,000 self-represented litigants in their native language.

One can readily see the fairness and collaboration inherent in these services. This service to the public reminds me that the strength of our justice system relies on the public's understanding of it.
As a judge, an appellate justice, and now as the Chief Justice, I’ve made it a top priority to further the public's understanding of our democracy. In fact, every year now, I have been visiting Ms. Cooperman's seventh grade class at Sutter Middle School in Sacramento to explain how the judicial branch works.
As Chief Justice, I’ve had the opportunity to expand my school visits to law schools, colleges, and high schools. I am extremely grateful to Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson for our partnership in this effort. Our partnership is in its second year and we have created a Civic Learning Award for public high schools that have made civic learning a priority. In spotlighting these schools, I will visit three of them this year to congratulate them.
When I visit the schools, I like to explain to them how it is that with the collaboration of the Legislature and the voters we have a strong and admired judicial branch that is only 17 years young. I explain that 17 years ago, while I was a superior court judge, the judicial branch transitioned from over 220 courts into 58 superior courts. I am greeted with surprise when I state that we are the largest judicial branch in the country and the largest law-trained judiciary in the world.
As I mentioned last year, civic learning also means helping kids to stay in school and out of court. We know the data reveals that a suspended or expelled child is far more likely to enter the juvenile justice system, and that these types of exclusionary disciplines fall more heavily on African American students, American Indian students, disabled students, and foster students. We as government leaders cannot stand by and let that happen. What has the judicial branch done to help?

The judicial branch has acted as a convener of stakeholders, teachers, social workers, attorneys, and law enforcement, to gather and discuss ways to keep our children in school.
Last December, with grant funding, I asked jurists and the AOC to put together local teams to attend the first summit of its kind, called “Keeping Kids in School and Out of Court.” 32 multidisciplinary teams from the 58 counties participated in discussing solutions. I thank Superintendent Torlakson, Attorney General Harris, Senate President Pro Tem Steinberg and Assemblymember Dickinson for attending and presenting to the teams.
There isn’t enough time for me to tell you all of the promising, compassionate and fair-minded projects the judicial branch is working on with you the Legislature or with other entities. I have, however, mentioned a few of our outward efforts at achieving fairness with collaboration. Let me next share a few of our more introspective and proactive efforts at developing fairer policies.
One of my core beliefs as a public official is that we should regularly reassess ourselves; essentially I mean that the status quo can always be improved.

Thus, in 2011, a few months after I became the new chief justice, I asked a group of jurists, retired, and currently sitting, and court and government experts to perform a programmatic, top to bottom evaluation of our staff—the AOC.
They worked for 18 months, and they delivered recommendations that the Judicial Council turned into 151 directives. They are now about 70 percent complete.
A few months ago, based on an increased interest, I asked the Judicial Council internal committee chairs to speed up the development of an open meetings rule for the Judicial Council.

The open meetings rule that is being contemplated will likely make us the most transparent judicial branch rule in the country. However, two outcomes seem certain—one, for some the rule doesn’t go far enough and two, for others the rule goes too far.

I am particularly pleased by another judicial branch initiative—the development of a comprehensive language access plan for California courts. Approximately 40 percent of Californians speak a non-English language at home and over 200 languages and dialects are spoken in California—the need is immense.

The goal is to bring a language plan to Judicial Council for its review in December.

Another critical issue facing the judicial branch is the need to adjust to the new responsibilities under criminal justice realignment. To this end, we have created in the AOC an office devoted to criminal justice court issues that include education and training on the new laws, researching and sharing of best practices, providing legal advice, and working collaboratively with the counties, law enforcement, and the prosecution and defense bar to make it work. In fact, at next month’s Judicial Council meeting there will be an open presentation and discourse on how criminal realignment is working in the courts.

The next phase of judicial branch self-assessment includes the creation of a commission on the future of the branch. We must take a hard look at the future of the branch to improve the dynamics of the legal system.
My colleague Justice Carol Corrigan has agreed to head up the commission.

I recognize the need to become more efficient, balance due process, and enhance access to justice for the public in the 21st century—all the while recognizing the state's diversity and our limited resources. For example, a bill supported by the California Judges Association to reduce peremptory challenges in misdemeanor cases achieves the kind of balancing act that the commission will need to look at.

Now, keen listeners may have noticed that I have yet to mention the need to properly fund the judicial branch. We have a lot of catching up to do and, just as we partnered in the budget reduction solution to the tune of about 1 billion dollars, we want to partner with you on reinvesting in the justice system. We want to achieve fairness and to collaborate on solutions.  My Three-Year Blueprint for a Fully Functioning Judicial Branch lays out our costs and serves as a reminder that court closures have deprived more than two million Californians access to justice to a local courthouse. A three-hour drive to the nearest courthouse can’t be fair in anyone's book.
The reductions of the past have fallen hardest on civil cases because, as you know, the Constitution and statutes guarantee the precedence of criminal cases. As a result, the only place to absorb the reductions is in the processing of civil cases.

As long as the branch is underfunded we will continue to see harmful and astonishing delays in civil redress for wrongful termination, discrimination, urgent family matters, foster care issues, and personal injury.

It’s tragic that 50 years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act we are on the verge of a different type of civil rights crisis.
Despite all this, the judicial branch perseveres and stands ready to provide the justice it can—even though we still rely on employee furloughs this fiscal year. The Supreme Court, the Courts of Appeal, the Habeas Corpus Center, the AOC: all on furlough. Some trial courts are still using furloughs. Kings County Superior Court, for example, furloughs its employees 21 days a year.

While most of the state workforce received a modest COLA or will be receiving one in the next fiscal, public servants in the judicial branch have gone without a cost-of-living increase for seven years.
As I began my address to you, I mentioned our common values—fairness and collaboration—and how those values inspire us and connect us—all in service to the public.

These are the same values that motivated those who pushed for the Civil Rights Act. We can trace the origins of the act to the civil rights work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. A few months before the president introduced the Civil Rights Act, Dr. King sat in a Birmingham jail and wrote a letter to his fellow clergymen who criticized him for bringing his civil rights movement to Birmingham.

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” Dr. King wrote. “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”

I would say that Dr. King’s quote should apply to the relationship of our three branches of government in service to the public.

Thank you for your time.