SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - In a meeting with reporters Monday, California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye addressed a sometimes contentious relationship between the courts and the other branches of government, the financial disparities between individual trial courts and the rhythm of the job.
The foremost topic of the press briefing was budget cuts to the courts and a recent meeting with Governor Jerry Brown on that issue. "The meeting with the governor was productive, it was congenial, it was pleasant, and it's preliminary," said the chief justice.
The chief justice said the principal item at the meeting was the question of whether the governor will go forward with plans to take $200 million from the trial courts' reserve funds in order to fund ongoing court operations. Those funds have used by trial courts to meet unexpected expenses and help get them through lean years.
The governor's Department of Finance last month proposed taking almost all that was left of those funds in the trial courts to help fund next year's overall court budget.
"We have to try to persuade Finance not to include this idea in the January 10th budget plan," said the chief justice. "We feel that once the concept is put into the Governor's budget plan it will be that much more difficult to persuade the Legislature and the Governor not to follow that course of action."
"It's critical, it's devastating to the trial courts," Cantil-Sakauye continued. "We already knew that fiscal year 13-14 would be incredibly difficult and we were seeking restoration, and if not restoration, at least no more further cuts. And we view this use of trial court fund balances to supplant general appropriations to the judicial branch as a cut."
"So it's very, very, very concerning," she concluded. "Courts are on pins and needles."
The year has been harrowing for the courts. Compounding the governor's funding news was the recent word from the Legislature that it will not put up any money for a costly courthouse in Long Beach -- forcing judges and administrators to come up with the promised funds from other courthouse projects.
In recent months, courts in San Joaquin, Fresno, San Bernardino and Los Angeles have announced staff layoffs and shuttered courtrooms.
Cantil-Sakauye said she has an "emotional response" every time she hears of another courtroom closure.
"It's unbelievable," she said. "Take San Bernardino; they'll be closing actual facilities, so people those communities once served will now have to drive three to four hours to get to court. And we're talking about people who don't have the kinds of resources where they can just get in the car and drive there. So the fact that that's happening in counties with such rural breadth like San Bernardino and Fresno really means we're denying those people their day in court."
"And in fact those two examples I brought up with the Governor and he was surprised to hear it and he was concerned about it," said the chief justice, "and we hope that has an impact on how he considers funding the branch."
Now entering her third year of piloting the judiciary through the narrows of California's fiscal crisis, Cantil-Sakauye said she is becoming acclimated to the round-the-clock nature of the job.
"I can say that I feel much more comfortable in the second year than I did in the first, only because I've been exposed to a wider array of issues. There will always be crises, but there is ultimately a solution to it," she said. "The rhythms of the year have made themselves more evident. I know I will always have budget crisis December and January, May and June. "
"So budget never goes away, it just recedes until it comes back again," she added. "I sleep a little more now, not as much as I used to, but I've come to enjoy it and expect it. And I have my own rhythm and I realize now that this job is really 24 hours and I don't mind that it's 24 hours. I like the noise. I'd like it to be different noise; I'd like it not to be budget all the time."
Ultimately, said the chief justice, she would like to move away from politics, an area she described as "uncharted territory" for the judiciary. "I'd like to think this is situational because all of California suffers from financial issues. I'd like to have the budget situation resolved, some stability in funding, and then be able to not be as active over the branch issues in the Capitol as we've had to be in the last two years."
While Cantil-Sakauye said the governor did not point out any particular problems with the way the judiciary uses its budget, and talked generally about competing demands on California's overall budget.
But the governor's financial officials have expressed concern about the funding gaps between between different local courts, in the face of complaints from judges that some small courts are made poor and others made comfortable by budget allocations.
"They have expressed a concern, and I have that same concern that there might be an impact and affect of disparate treatment of public resources amongst 58 courts," she said, citing the historically battered San Joaquin Superior Court, which has already shuttered its regional courthouses and is on the brink of doing away with civil cases altogether.
"You can't deny that San Joaquin has very difficult financial challenges, looking to close small claims and all civil, or so they say." Meanwhile, she said, "you have others that are paperless, and seem to be not good -- but surviving better than San Joaquin. So those are the kinds of conversations we have with Finance."
Cantil-Sakauye said she hopes the presiding judges will be able to come up with a way to achieve some equity in funding.
"Now you could have that discussion," she continued. "The presiding judges are very aware now of the disparity amongst sister courts and I believe they're looking at several ways to fix the disparity."
Another conversation is also evolving, said the chief justice -- that of how the judiciary spends its money. Two years ago, it was assumed that the Legislature would stay out of how the third branch spends its money. But after a costly statewide court computer project was scrapped earlier this year, the judiciary's spending is being watched carefully by the Legislature.
"We have to get away from the fact that we say things like, 'This is our money,'" Cantil-Sakauye said. "Because when there isn't money we all start looking around at who has it and why did they lose it and who was good with it -- and those are all ugly questions that we never really answered expect maybe in the last two years."
"So I just start from the point of view that we all have to affirm that this is public money, that we're judicial officers and we have an oath and people expect us to be efficient with it."
Cantil-Sakauye said that was her underlying logic in commissioning a 14-judge Strategic Evaluation Committee to evaluate the Administrative Office of the Courts, the staff agency criticized by lawmakers and judges for mismanaging the computer project.
"That goes a long way toward setting an example about looking at our staff and how we operate and whether we can do that more efficiently," she said. "We need to do it regularly. And if we do it regularly, maybe we will operate differently. And the other two branches, when it comes to looking for money and second guessing values and how money was spent, we'll then have a record of what we've been doing and how we've been doing it when the time comes to start looking for reductions."