Chief Justice Speech - March 10, 2009

MARCH 10, 2009

Good afternoon. I would like to thank your leadership, Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg and Assembly Speaker Karen Bass, for their invitation to address you today.

Many of you will be meeting with some of the 80 or so members of the Bench Bar Coalition tomorrow. These meetings, and this address, provide a unique opportunity for the judicial branch to inform you about what our courts are doing with the resources you provide to us, and about the actions we are taking to reduce the costs of our operations — as well as to share with you the fundamental objectives we are pursuing to ensure that our courts meet their obligation to provide fair, accessible, and impartial justice for all Californians.

In addition to members of the Bench Bar Coalition, I am joined here today by my colleagues, the Associate Justices of the Supreme Court, members of the Judicial Council — the constitutional body I chair that is charged with responsibility for the statewide administration of justice, the Administrative Director of the Courts, Bill Vickrey, the director of our Office of Governmental Affairs, Curt Child, and other top staff from the Administrative Office of the Courts, which serves as the staff arm of the Judicial Council.

We in the judicial branch are keenly aware of the difficulties confronting you caused by the economic downturn affecting every region and every resident of our state. And I also know that you have been cajoled and harangued — and begged, pleaded, bargained, and argued with — as you have stretched too few dollars to try to meet the needs of all Californians. We appreciate that you have had to make difficult decisions and arrive at compromises for the good of the people of our state in establishing the framework of an eighteen-month budget in the context of an economy that shows no signs of a rapid turn-around at the state or national level.

The courts recognize that we share the obligation of doing our part to address the serious economic downturn. In the judicial branch, we have taken the initiative to reduce expenditures and to do more with less. At the Supreme Court, the Court of Appeal, and the Administrative Office of the Courts, more than a third of our staff have voluntarily taken unpaid furlough days. We also have kept vacant positions open where we can, as have trial courts, which in many counties are reducing hours of service.

Much of the work of the Judicial Council is performed with the assistance of advisory committees and task forces that bring together experts and affected parties to provide recommendations to the Council in areas such as civil and small claims actions, criminal law, foster care, access and fairness, family law, and self-represented litigants. The entire branch is cutting back on the number of in-person meetings, substituting telephone and video-conferencing when we can. We have curtailed travel and have delayed replacement of equipment and furniture.

Based on past experience, we anticipate that during these difficult times, caseloads in several categories are likely to grow. As we know, criminal activity often rises in times of economic downturn. But many more areas are affected as well — for example, unlawful detainer actions involving both residential and commercial property, sometimes resulting from foreclosures; and petitions to modify child support — because one or both parents have lost a job or their home. Increased domestic violence and a greater need for foster care also can result from the heightened stresses now affecting many families. And courts will face the challenge of dealing effectively with the growing number of offenders who are homeless or have no access to services for mental illness or addiction.

Nor are commercial transactions exempt. Contract disputes increase as more parties cannot meet their obligations. And small claims actions, including collection activities, will proliferate. All of these matters, often fraught with heated emotions, require that the services provided by the courts be available if important issues are to be resolved in an orderly and expeditious fashion.

In enacting the recent budget, you have recognized several of the most urgent needs of the court system and have placed the judicial branch in a position where we can contribute to your efforts to curtail the cost of state government while taking action to stimulate and strengthen California's economy.

The promise of the 2002 Trial Court Facilities Act is being realized, with 466 of California's current 528 court facilities having been transferred from the counties to the state as of December 31, 2008. We appreciate the action you took to extend the transfer deadline to enable the court system and the counties to successfully negotiate these complex transactions.

We now can focus on answering the most critical needs for courthouse construction and renovation: security, seismic issues, and access. Many court facilities pose serious dangers to users — litigants, jurors, witnesses, court staff, lawyers, judges, and persons coming to the courthouse to pay traffic tickets or obtain copies of documents. The enactment of Senate Bill 1407 last year established a revenue bond program that will fund the 41 most urgently needed courthouse construction projects across the state.

Your swift adoption during the special session of Senate Bill 2X 12, authored by Senate President pro Tem Steinberg, and providing continuous appropriation authority for the revenue accruing under last year's enactment, will allow the prompt initiation of site acquisition and design work for these vital courthouse projects. It has been reported that this courthouse construction program will provide more than 100,000 jobs — acting as a stimulus to California's economy, with no burden on the state's beleaguered general fund. We have every intention of proceeding rapidly with these projects, reporting back to you on our progress, and demonstrating that your continued support for these efforts is well-deserved. By the way, we will be developing these buildings applying high levels of sustainability and environmentally green design.

We also thank you for your action in allowing the continuation of long-standing, county-level judicial benefits. We shall continue to work with you to fashion an appropriate benefit system applicable statewide to all judges, and to press for modest changes to the second tier of the existing judicial retirement system, all in order to attract and retain the best and the brightest and most diverse pool of applicants to the bench.

Serious challenges to the operation of our justice system remain. We await the determination of whether the trigger in the recently-enacted budget — based upon the receipt of federal stimulus funds — will be activated, restoring $100 million in the budget for the support of trial courts and another $71 million for new judicial positions. Failure to fill the $100 million hole in our budget would decrease the availability of services that are vital to the public and its access to the courts. It potentially could result in lay-offs and furloughs of court employees at some courts, in shortened hours of service, and inevitably in further delays in adjudicating cases. Meanwhile, as funding of our courts decreases, their workload increases — not only because of the economic downturn, but also due to legislative mandates and larger caseloads resulting from population growth.

Despite these pressures, we must continue to lay the foundation for the future by continuing the state's substantial investment in efforts such as the ongoing development of our case management system, which will increase the effectiveness and efficiency of the courts. Presently, courts and law enforcement agencies often do not have access to current information on the status of defendants — or of arrest warrants. In some courts, a judge handling a child custody dispute may not have access to information showing that the mother has obtained a protective order or that she is a defendant in a drug case. Too often, judges cannot effectively communicate within the boundaries of their county or even their courthouse, much less with other courts or with law enforcement agencies or the Department of Motor Vehicles.

An integrated case management system is critical to our ability to provide all three branches of state government and local agencies and the public with the type of information and access that will enable the judicial system to remain accountable and effective. Efforts in this important area are well underway, and we look forward to your continued support.

I want to turn now to the lack of an appropriation to fund the next installment of authorized new judgeships, a situation that is exacerbating an already critical need. In 2005, the Judicial Council sought authorization for 150 of the most critically needed judicial positions among the 350 that the National Center for State Courts recommended be created for California. Our approach was to seek 50 new judgeships in each of three successive years. The first group of 50 was authorized and funded as requested for the last month of the 2006-2007 fiscal year. The second set of 50 judgeships was approved in 2007, but funding has twice been delayed, most recently until July 2009.

Subsequently, in the most recent budget legislation, you made the funding for these 50 judgeships contingent upon reaching the trigger mark in federal stimulus funds. Contingent funds also are provided for the last 50 positions in June 2010.

In the event the trigger is not pulled and these funds are not automatically restored to the budget, I urge you nonetheless to seriously consider authorizing this funding so that the courts can meet the very urgent need of Californians for access to the justice system. Senator Ellen Corbett has introduced Senate Bill 377 to authorize the last group of new judicial positions, and I also urge your support for this measure.

The gap between population and caseload growth and the number of judges continues to widen. Increases in judicial positions to match those workload increases have lagged for decades. You have heard from me in the past about the critical situation in Riverside, in which civil trials have languished for years while criminal cases, entitled under the law to priority, were delayed — in some instances for years — occasionally resulting in dismissal of the charges.

During the past fiscal year, I appointed a task force of active and retired judges with special expertise to help reduce Riverside's criminal case backlog, and a smaller group to assist with some of the long-postponed civil cases. We acted on our own initiative and without requesting any additional funds from the Legislature, reallocating internal resources because of the urgency of the need — but we have had to discontinue the criminal task force because of the drain on our resources. These successful efforts have been supplemented by the voluntary contribution of several local retired judges, who have pitched in to preside over civil trials — but even with these added judicial resources, delays persist.

Similar logjams are developing not only elsewhere in the Inland Empire, but also in the Central Valley and here in Sacramento. The phrase "justice delayed is justice denied" may be a cliché — but it is one that contains a great deal of truth. We threaten one of the foundations of the administration of justice if we cannot ensure that civil litigants will receive their day in court in a timely manner — and that defendants in criminal matters may either be found guilty and sentenced, or released — as the case merits — within the speedy trial deadlines prescribed by the Legislature.

The staggering caseloads and the emotional volatility of many of the matters brought to our overcrowded courthouses also accentuate the often insufficient security that exists in our judicial facilities, despite the best efforts of the officers and attendants who oversee them. Security standards have been agreed upon by the courts and the Sheriffs, but funding to implement them has never been provided.

The Los Angeles Superior Court's 2009 Annual Report, the subject of a story last month in the Los Angeles Times, notes that in monitoring the more than 21 million entries into that court's 48 facilities last year, weapons screeners during the first eight months of the year recovered almost 200,000 dangerous and prohibited items, including more than 53,000 knives, 21,000 razors, 8,200 handcuffs, and 114 stun guns. The 2008 report alluded to prior death threats (including one against a judge's child); the unsolved murder of a judge and his wife at their home — believed to be related to his judicial duties; a gun held to a prosecutor's head; and a hit list found in a solitary confinement cell that included the name of a judge.

The Times article also referred to a shooting that took place several years ago when a physician, embroiled in a divorce, carried a handgun into the main courthouse and killed his wife in the hallway outside a family-law courtroom. As I have mentioned on other occasions, I happened to arrive at the courthouse for a meeting while personnel were still engaged in mopping the blood off the floor. This incident made an indelible impression on me.

Just six days ago in Stockton, a murder suspect stepped off the witness stand and punched and stabbed San Joaquin Superior Court Judge Cinda Fox with a six-inch metal spike before being shot to death in the courtroom by a police officer.

The vast majority of individuals who carry prohibited items into courthouses have no intention of using them for violent purposes once inside the court facility. But we can speculate what other violent encounters might have occurred if adequate security had not been in place in those documented Los Angeles incidents in which security discovered a sword hidden in a cane, a gun in a diaper bag, and concealed sets of brass knuckles.

Providing at least a minimum level of security measures is essential if we are to ensure the public's safety in our court facilities. Courthouses should be sanctuaries for the peaceful resolution of disputes — not crime scenes or potential battlefields. A proposal advanced by the Governor would add a modest $7 increase in the court security fee to address the ongoing shortfall in funding in order to allow courts simply to maintain — not increase — existing security levels. That proposal has not yet been adopted. It would, along with a measure to contain court security costs in the future, sufficiently address this gap in funding, and we shall be working with you to accomplish this goal.

I know none of us wants to pick up the newspaper or turn on the evening news and learn about another attack or fatal incident that would have been prevented by the provision of adequate funding for courthouse security.

Our courts also must have sufficient funding to meet our federal and state constitutional obligations to provide court-appointed counsel to criminal defendants on appeal, as well as counsel in dependency courts to protect the rights of children and parents. We also still lack the number of interpreters sufficient to effectively meet the needs of parties and witnesses in criminal and critical civil cases.

Another matter of concern to the entire state, and one of the highest legislative priorities for the Judicial Council, is implementation of the recommendations of the California Blue Ribbon Commission on Children in Foster Care. Chaired by my colleague, Supreme Court Justice Carlos Moreno, the Commission included stakeholders representing all three branches of government, as well as the private and non-profit sectors. We are pleased that Speaker Bass, President pro Tem Steinberg, and former Assembly Member Bill Maze served as members of this important body.

We are currently sponsoring three bills this year in the area of foster care. Assembly Bill 12, authored by Assembly Member Jim Beall and Speaker Bass, would enact various major foster care reforms identified by the Blue Ribbon Commission and supported by recently enacted federal legislation. Just yesterday, a legislative report was released recommending that foster care be extended to age 21. The new report sets forth the clear economic and social benefits of this approach, supporting the enactment of AB 12.

Assembly Bill 131, by Assembly Member Noreen Evans, seeks to lower the caseload carried by attorneys who represent children and parents in these proceedings. And Assembly Bill 938, by the Judiciary Committee, chaired by Assembly Member Mike Feuer, promotes the identification of relatives of children who are in foster care, in order to provide support for these children and their families.

Our foster care system clearly needs improvement. We must provide the courts with the tools necessary to ensure that the best interests of abused and neglected children are served by our child welfare system. The state assumes parental responsibility for these children when they enter the foster care system, and the courts are charged with overseeing their care. Children are our future. Reform is a matter not only of legal obligation, but of moral obligation as well.

Over the years, you have heard me speak about the difficulties caused by the circumstance that more and more litigants in civil cases, particularly in family law matters, cannot afford the cost of an attorney and are representing themselves. In May of last year, I appointed a Family Law Task Force, chaired by Court of Appeal Justice Laurie Zelon, to undertake a comprehensive review of family law proceedings. The task force will make recommendations to the Judicial Council for improving access to justice in these matters, ensuring due process, and providing more effective, efficient, and consistent rules in family law matters. We shall be working with you to bring about necessary changes in legislation to improve our service to these self-represented litigants.

There is another very important activity in our judicial branch that I would like to mention. In 2007, I appointed the Commission for Impartial Courts, chaired by my colleague, Supreme Court Justice Ming Chin. The commission's charge is to study and make recommendations to ensure that California's courts remain impartial and accountable.

California has, to a large extent, been spared some of the most egregious campaign conduct that has been proliferating in the judicial elections held in other states. You may be aware that just last week, a case was argued before the United States Supreme Court that involved the issue whether a West Virginia Supreme Court justice should have recused himself from participating in a case in which an individual who was tied closely and financially to one of the parties had contributed $3 million to defeat the justice's opponent. This justice cast the deciding vote overturning a multi-million dollar jury verdict that had been rendered against the contributing party.

Unlike the legislative and executive branches, which are designed and intended to be responsive to the will of the majority, the role of the judicial branch — in providing impartial justice based upon the constitution, legislative enactments, and case precedent — is not to act upon the preferences of constituents, political platforms, or personal inclination. Retired Justice Sandra Day O'Connor has become sufficiently concerned about recent developments in this area that she has assumed the role of leading spokesperson in the nation for efforts to reduce the influence of special interests in the selection of our judicial officers, and I serve on the Steering Committee of the Project on the State of the Judiciary that bears her name.

The Judicial Council's Commission for Impartial Courts is comprised of judges and lawyers, as well as members of the public — including former legislators, the business community, media, and leading scholars. We anticipate that the Judicial Council soon will circulate the draft recommendations of the commission for public comment and thereafter act on the commission's final recommendations in August. I hope you will read the report and support our efforts to proceed with reforms designed both to secure the continued impartial administration of justice for all Californians and to ensure appropriate accountability on the part of the judicial branch.

The judiciary is continuously engaged in efforts to improve access to justice and to respond to the needs of the public we serve. The challenges faced by the judicial branch are daunting — ever-growing caseloads over which we have no control, an insufficient number of judges and staff, and crowded and unsafe courthouse facilities. And yet, during my 37 years on the bench, I have never encountered more dedication, devotion, and enthusiasm from our judicial officers and staff than I see today. As committed public servants, like you, they are actively committed to confronting the difficult challenges that face our state today.

In conclusion, I want to express again our gratitude not only for the support that you have provided to the judicial branch, but also for all your efforts on behalf of all the residents of our state. I look forward to continuing to work with you to ensure that all Californians have access to the fair and impartial administration of justice to which they are entitled.

Thank you again for inviting me to address you. I hope you will join us for the reception that will immediately follow in the rotunda of the Capitol.

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