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Chief justice urges reinvestment in courts

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POSTED March 11, 2013 5:52 p.m.

SACRAMENTO (AP) — California's top judge urged lawmakers on Monday to ensure equal access to justice by reinvesting in a court system that has been hit with years of budget cuts.

Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye said California has cut more out of its judicial branch than any other state. She noted that the court budget has been reduced by more than $1 billion over the last five budget years.

California spends about 1 percent of the state's general fund on its court system while other states typically spend 2 percent. She said a penny on the dollar was not sufficient to provide proper justice.

The cuts have resulted in fewer courtrooms, higher fees and delayed repairs and construction on a number of buildings.

Since she was sworn in two years ago by former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, Cantil-Sakauye has been trying to make the case for restoring the courts' funding. California's system, which includes 58 trial courts, six courts of appeal and the Supreme Court, has about 2,000 judicial officers and 18,000 court employees.

This year, Gov. Jerry Brown's proposed budget takes $200 million from court construction funds as a way to postpone additional cutbacks. He also proposes delaying repayment of a $90 million court construction loan.

Brown's finance spokesman, H.D. Palmer, said the governor has tried to maintain stable funding for the courts throughout the recession while other areas such as public schools and universities have endured deep cuts. Palmer said state grants to seniors and the disabled have been cut to their lowest levels since 1982 and that the state's welfare-to-work program has been cut to 1987 levels.

"What we have been able to do through a combination of fees and transfers is to keep operations stable," he said of the court budget.

Last month, the state judicial council voted to delay 11 courthouse construction projects in case none of that money is restored this year. The contingency plan comes after the council voted in January to indefinitely delay court construction in Sacramento, Nevada, Los Angeles and Fresno counties while money is being spent to replace a Long Beach courthouse damaged by an earthquake.

Some state lawmakers have suggested restoring some of the money.

During a stop in Sacramento last week, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy said the political branches of government have an "absolute obligation" to make sure the judicial branch can function. He said trial courts have no way to control the number of cases coming in.

"You simply must give to the courts the resources that they need or you're undercutting the rule of law for which we stand," Kennedy said. "I think it's a very important obligation that legislators have, and they have to find the resources."

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