California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye said Monday that state courts have worked hard to become more efficient and minimize the impact of deep budget cuts in recent years.
Speaking to a joint meeting of the Legislature in her annual State of the Judiciary speech, the chief justice generally avoided controversy. But she made veiled references to recent criticisms leveled at the agency that oversees the state's 58 county courts.
A state audit released in January questioned about $30 million in spending by the Administrative Office of the Courts over the last four years. Lawmakers harshly questioned court officials at a recent hearing on the report, which came about after judges complained that the court was too top-heavy and its operations too opaque.
Cantil-Sakauye told the Legislature Monday that the judiciary "has been changed forever by a significant event" -- the Great Recession -- and "our response" to it.
She was also quick to note, however, that the judicial branch "takes up only 1.4 percent of the state general fund," adding that cuts "have had a particularly significant impact on those seeking justice in our courts."
Cantil-Sakauye said the courts have responded with creativity and made changes, noting that she created a committee made up of judicial staff to evaluate the court's headquarters. The committee's findings resulted in a 30 percent reduction in staff at headquarters and prompted the opening of Judicial Council meetings to the public.
The entire court system also has been embracing innovation, she said, pointing in particular toward 383 collaborative justice courts throughout California that aim to reduce recidivism and improve offender outcomes by combining supervision with rehabilitation services.
"But the cuts to the judiciary in recent years -- more than $1 billion over a five-year period -- means we must accelerate our search for innovations and efficiencies," she said. "The California Judges Association is backing a number of thoughtful legislative proposals that should be studied."
To that end, Cantil-Sakauye said she created a commission that will "take a fresh look at our legal infrastructure and will recommend ways to deliver justice and court services more efficiently without compromising fairness or due process."
She ended with a word of warning, saying she is also working on civics education and engagement, "because innovations and efficiencies in any of our branches mean little if the public we serve does not understand or trust us."
The chief justice noted the state's dismal 31 percent turnout of eligible voters (42 percent of those registered) in last November's general election and said government leaders have a responsibility to encourage engagement.
"And I know that as three branches we can disagree on many, many things, but I’d like to hope we can agree on one thing, and that is our hope for a fair and enduring democracy," she said. "And I think that can be achieved by supporting civics initiatives, supporting innovative smart decisions that benefit the people of California, and investing in the future, including the judiciary. So I look forward in this legislative year and beyond to work with you on that investment. "