SACRAMENTO (AP) — The state Supreme Court chief justice, the president of the state bar and the two attorneys who are challenging California's ban on gay marriage warned Monday that state budget cuts to the court system are making justice inaccessible for average people.
Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye was joined at a Capitol press conference by two now-prominent attorneys who are leading a similar investigation into the effect of court cutbacks nationwide.
Attorneys David Boies and Theodore Olson, co-chairmen of an American Bar Association task force on court cutbacks, later testified at a Senate hearing that the freedoms guaranteed in the U.S. and California constitutions are meaningless without independent courts to enforce those rights.
"It's the third branch of government, but it is the branch that keeps the other two branches of government honest," Olson said. "... We're not talking about money for courts or judges or lawyers, we're talking about money for a justice system that serves the people."
The weak, vulnerable and poor are most affected, Olson said, but he said businesses also depend upon reliable, efficient court systems to enforce property rights and contract disputes, which could lead business owners to operate elsewhere.
Cantil-Sakauye has warned lawmakers that cutting some $650 million over the last four years has closed courtrooms, led to staff layoffs and longer wait times for services. Gov. Jerry Brown's proposed budget for 2012-13 includes another $125 million in cuts if voters do not approve temporary sales and income tax increases the governor is seeking to place on the November ballot.
"In Sacramento, we know of a situation where a father sought custody of his son during a time when the mother was trying to take the son out of state. The father went to the Sacramento court, but due to delays, employee layoffs, reduced services — all due to budget cuts — that father was unable to file his papers and his son left the state, fate unknown," Cantil-Sakauye said Monday.
Advocates of greater funding also pointed to restraining orders in domestic violence cases, judgments in traffic accidents and homeowners fighting foreclosures as services that have been significantly delayed because of cutbacks.
Proposed funding for 2012-13 is expected to be around $3.3 billion, down from a high of nearly $4 billion in 2010-11, according to the state Legislative Analyst's Office. Many of the previous cuts were covered by one-time funding shifts that are no longer available, the LAO said in a new report.
The courts also increased fines and fees to bring in an extra $70 million in annual revenue, the LAO said. It recommended the state Legislature adopt a proposal by the governor to further increase civil fees to generate another $50 million a year.