Politics & Government

Californians to watch 2014: Tani Cantil-Sakauye tries to rebuild California’s massive court system

How do you solve a problem like the California judiciary?

As chief justice of California, Tani Cantil-Sakauye has been faced with that question for the last three years.

The system she inherited in 2011 was in full crisis mode: An expensive new statewide case management system was proving impossible to implement; deep budget cuts were forcing layoffs, furloughs and courthouse closures; and a group of judges was becoming increasingly vocal in its dissatisfaction with how it was all being handled.

Sitting in her roomy chambers on the Capitol Mall, blocks away from where her childhood home once stood, Cantil-Sakauye acknowledged that answers have not come easily during the rocky start to her term.

“We’re in a reactive mode,” she said. “We can’t turn this ship on a dime, but we were forced to.”

A new chapter may be imminent, though.

Looking ahead to 2014, Cantil-Sakauye says her focus has shifted from the “fast and furious” challenges that defined her early tenure to the “deep-water challenges” ahead: reversing recent losses to court access across the state, and making sure the system is as efficient as possible, so it can prepare for any future budget free falls.

The crises, for one, finally seem to be abating. After eating through half a billion dollars with little progress, implementation of the troubled case management system was halted last year, and in July, the judiciary received an extra $63 million in funding, its first budget increase after four years of crippling cuts.

Cantil-Sakauye has also found some key support across the street in the Capitol, including state Sen. Noreen Evans, D-Santa Rosa, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

“The budget cuts that the judiciary branch has sustained over the past couple of years have threatened justice” in California, Evans said in an interview, pointing to about 200 fewer available courtrooms across the state and long wait times in those that remain open.

Evans said she has worked closely with Cantil-Sakauye to address the budget crunch, as well as concerns in the Legislature over how the judicial branch has been run in the past.

“The chief justice is very open to new ways of doing things – that’s one of my favorite things about her,” Evans said. She’s also “very conscious about the need to provide leadership.”

Cantil-Sakauye’s vision for next year and beyond centers on reopening some of California’s 53 shuttered courthouses, especially in rural areas where residents may have to drive for hours to reach a court. Where that’s not possible, she suggests experimenting with technological solutions, such as videoconferencing that would allow judges to try cases remotely.

She also has her eye on the state’s immensely diverse population. Cantil-Sakauye says more than 200 languages and dialects are spoken in California courts every day, all of which need the support of interpreters to facilitate communication.

“If you can’t understand what’s happening in court, it’s illusory that you have a right to be there,” she said.

With those priorities in mind, Cantil-Sakauye is making a serious push for increased funding in the next fiscal year: another $472 million, which is about how much has cumulatively been cut from the judiciary’s budget since 2008.

While money has been shuffled from discretionary accounts, such as courthouse reconstruction, to counteract some of the effects of the cuts, those reserves are now gone, Cantil-Sakauye said, making a budget increase next year more crucial than ever.

That could be an uphill battle: Assembly Speaker John A. Perez released a blueprint budget plan earlier this month that included no new appropriations for the judiciary, and not everyone is convinced Cantil-Sakauye can make a convincing case otherwise – in particular the Alliance of California Judges, a group of about 500 judges that has been highly critical of the judicial administration since it was founded in 2009.

“I would hope that she would recognize there are perceived financial problems within the branch that need to be dealt with to re-establish credibility with the Legislature,” said Judge Susan Lopez-Giss, a Superior Court judge in Los Angeles and a director of the judges’ alliance.

The group has been especially outspoken about the canceled case management system upgrade, which it maintains was massively bungled and for which it is seeking a state audit. More recently, the alliance has criticized a 3.5 percent raise given to some administrative employees last July after the branch received the additional $63 million.

“It’s hard for me to understand how people can get merit raises when courthouses are being closed across the state,” Lopez-Giss said.

Cantil-Sakauye defends the raises, which she said she approved to offset salary cuts from monthly furloughs over the past several years. She added that the raises only amounted to a small portion of the 5 percent of the judiciary budget that the administrative office receives.

“Do I pull out the torch every time I hear someone gets 3 percent or 2 percent or 5 percent? Do I run down the street with my hair on fire? No, I do not,” she said. “I think everyone is worth a little more than 3 percent, frankly.”

Those financial dramas don’t even touch upon the legal dilemmas the California Supreme Court might face in 2014 – though for Cantil-Sakauye, the challenges can’t compare.

“That’s the only saving grace for this work,” she said. “When I read cases, it’s like silence falls in the world around me.”


Title: Chief Justice of California

Age: 54

Resume highlights: First Asian American and second woman to serve as the state’s chief justice. Previously served for 20 years on municipal, Superior and appellate courts in Sacramento. Established the Superior Court of Sacramento County’s first court dedicated solely to domestic violence issues. Worked as deputy legal affairs secretary and deputy legislative secretary for Gov. George Deukmejian.

Chief goal in 2014: Reopening courtrooms across the state that have closed due to judiciary budget cuts over the past five years, particularly in rural areas where court access is limited.

Biggest challenge in 2014: Convincing the Legislature to increase funding for the court system following concerns over how the branch has been managed.