California Court Budget Cuts: Moving Away From Equal Access, Justice

"I am afraid California is on the wrong side of history when it comes to its funding of justice."

- California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye
State of the Judiciary Address to the California State Legislature

Fifty years ago, in Gideon v. Wainwright, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that criminal defendants would have access to counsel no matter what their income. Today, California court budget issues are making access to justice an increasingly difficult concept. Because of budget cuts, courts are closing their doors, trial dates are being pushed further out than ever, court staff, defense attorneys and prosecutors face layoffs, and alternative dispute resolution options are becoming less attainable.

While all criminal defendants are entitled to public defenders, the public defender's office is facing similar cuts and in most California counties, self-help services for litigants who cannot afford lawyers have been cut or reduced.

California's judicial branch "has been cut greater and deeper than any other court in the United States," Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye said. In just five years, the court system has lost $1 billion, or 65 percent of its budget.

The Numbers

The following are only a few of the effects of the California court budget cuts:

  • More than 100 courtrooms have closed statewide, more than 50 in Los Angeles County alone.
  • More than 2,600 court employees have lost their jobs.
  • Twenty California counties close court doors one day every month.
  • Court window services have been cut by 75 percent in Sacramento, dramatically increasing lines.
  • Paying a traffic ticket in San Francisco can take four hours.
  • Parties must wait weeks for a court mediator. In Stanislaus County, parents must wait 17 weeks for a family court mediator.
  • Eleven counties do not have the resources to order domestic violence restraining orders on the day they are filed.

In personal injury cases, the effects of the budget crisis can be felt in the significant delays and additional expenses, including paying for their own court reporter. Many litigants will need to travel long distances just to have their day in court.

Seeking Solutions

The California state courts serve more than 38 million people. It is the largest state court system in the U.S., but it is also the one facing the largest budget cuts. California attorneys and judges see daily how the court system is failing Californians, but it is a situation many other Californians do not understand until they are waiting in line for hours to pay a traffic ticket or waiting for months to argue their case in court.

"What we once counted on," Chief Justice Cantil-Sakauye said, "that courts would be open, available and ready to dispense prompt justice, is no longer the case in California." The court system has done its part to reduce costs, but it is not enough. The court used to receive 2 percent of the budget. Now, it receives half that - 1 percent.

The judiciary is seeking to have $475 million restored to its budget. Yet, the court system cannot do it alone. We need public awareness and action to show the Legislature that our courts matter and we are indeed moving in the wrong direction, away from equal access and away from justice.