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California chief justice warns of ‘civil rights crisis’

California faces a “civil rights crisis” because of years of funding reductions for the judicial branch, Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye said Monday afternoon during her third State of the Judiciary Address.

Speaking to a joint legislative session in the Assembly Chamber at the Capitol, Cantil-Sakauye asked for partnership across the government to address what has been nearly half a billion dollars in cumulative budget cuts since 2008. She said the reductions have deprived more than 2 million Californians of access to a local court and have had a particularly negative effect on civil cases, which cede precedence to criminal justice.

“We face astonishing and harmful delays in urgent family matters, in business contracts, wrongful termination, discrimination cases, personal injury cases across the board,” she said. “We want to be a partner in fair and collaborative solutions.”

Cantil-Sakauye tied her comments to the 50th anniversary of the federal Civil Rights Act. She called the landmark legislation, which outlawed discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin, “the fair thing and the right thing to do.”

“But it also took collaboration” to create and enforce, she added. “That’s how an effective democracy works – all three branches in collaboration.”

She pointed to recent efforts within the California judiciary, including the creation of problem-solving courts, which emphasize rehabilitative programs over punitive solutions, and a push to address disparities in the juvenile justice system, where young people who are black, American Indian, disabled or in foster care are overrepresented.

At the top of the speech, lawmakers gave a standing ovation to Justice Joyce L. Kennard, who will retire in April after 25 years on the California Supreme Court. Honoring her rise from immigrant to judge, Cantil-Sakauye saluted Kennard’s “uncommon intellect, integrity and courage.”