California's Chief Justice Hopes for More Court Funding Under Gavin Newsom

Tani Cantil-Sakauye, chief justice of the California Supreme Court, hopes the court budget will see better times under Governor-elect Gavin Newsom. (Scott Shafer/KQED)

The chief justice of California's Supreme Court loves the people Gov. Jerry Brown has appointed as judges across the state — but she's hoping his replacement, Gavin Newsom, will take a kinder eye to the court system at budget time.

"I met with the governor-elect on several occasions, and we have talked generally," said Tani Cantil-Sakauye, adding "as you know the new governor's father (William Newsom) is a former appeals court justice. And so we hope that we will have home-field support."

Gavin Newsom is a businessman, not a lawyer like Jerry Brown, who never seemed especially sympathetic to the chief justice's pleas to restore funds cut during the recession.

Referring to Gov. Brown's first few budgets, she said "in the Great Recession the branch was cut numerous times, over and over, oftentimes mid-year. We had no ability to plan. We had no ability to attempt to serve those who were already in our court system — not to mention those who were coming in at a time when foreclosures were high and unemployment was high."

In a wide-ranging session with reporters Tuesday morning, Cantil-Sakauye said what she's hoping for in the Newsom administration is financial certainty.

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"As far as I am concerned, stability and sustainability, particularly in times of economic chaos, matter to the court in a recession."

Since the retirement of Justice Kathryn M. Werdegar in 2017, the court has had to manage with just six justices and a rotating cast of appeals court judges — 124 in total — to hear cases while Gov. Brown took more than a year to nominate her replacement.

Cantil-Sakauye was discreet in discussing the disruption that vacancy caused to the court system, but she expressed support for Brown's recent Supreme Court nominee Joshua Groban, a legal adviser to the governor.

Asked about the more than 600 judges appointed to all levels of the court by Gov. Brown since 2011, the chief justice described them as "fantastic."

"Our numbers show that over 50 percent of his appointments have been female," Cantil-Sakauye said. "Also about 40 percent self-identified as non-white. I think that is a huge step in the right direction for California."

Asked about the court's change of direction under Gov. Brown, Cantil-Sakauye said younger judges are putting the courts more in-tune with "California's philosophy."

"I think the philosophy of California is people-centric, and I think it's ... underdog-centric," the chief justice said. "It's about 'What are we going to do about homelessness? What are you going to do about climate? What are we going to do about guns?' ... And all of that focuses on what people cannot do for themselves. I think it's the right place to be. I think it's a good place to be."

In more than an hour of discussion with reporters, Cantil-Sakauye touched on a wide range of issues, including the continuing immigration crackdown in California courthouses by federal immigration enforcement agents, the high failure rate for the State Bar exam, the status of capital punishment and changes to the state's cash bail system.

All in all she said, "it's an exciting place to be for the Supreme Court."