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Chief Justice’s “State of the Court” Address Smacks of Politics (?)

A few weeks ago, many of us lawyers and judges, selected leaders from across the state, came together in Sacramento to lobby legislators to give more attention to the needs of the courts and access to justice in our legal system through funding of needed repairs and construction to facilities, budgetary concerns regarding staffing and services, and funding critical vacancies and needs in the judiciary. We spent the day letting Democrats and

Republicans know how their lack of attention to, and satisfaction of, these needs negatively affects their voters, the public, and the people of this great state. Justice is just a word if there is no ability of people to seek it in a timely fashion from our courts.

When we completed the day of lobbying, most of us then gathered in the Assembly Chambers in the State Capitol late that Monday afternoon to hear the State of the Judiciary speech of Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye. Our Chief Justice is an excellent speaker; and I was expecting a very well reasoned and compelling, instructional talk directed to budgetary concerns, delays in the courts, and issues directly affecting the ability of the courts to timely and effectively hear and decide cases. This would include the constantly increasing fees and costs of having cases heard, an underfunded court system, a court system dependent on the other two branches of government to determine its funding, and the like.

The Chief Justice did touch on some of these issues, but it seemed that much of her speech was directed toward treatment of immigrants and the availability of courts (and thereby justice) to those immigrants, irrespective of legal status.

Talking about California’s “strength in diversity” the Chief Justice mentioned her in-laws spending years in internment camps during World War II and reflected on several cases that have since upheld the rights of racial minorities and immigrants. She criticized a perceived Federal immigration crackdown at courthouses, targeting people who entered the U.S. illegally. She used the term “stalking” in describing agents focused on immigrants, and voiced her criticism of using the courts as “bait”.

Even though some legislators had praised the Chief Justice earlier in the day (during our talks) for her serious and dedicated efforts at administration of the courts and managing funds and budget cutbacks, many were critical of the seemingly political vent of her comments concerning the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) efforts within the courthouses in California. They felt her comments smacked of politics, went too far and stepped outside of her role as the Chief Justice, a member of the court charged with reviewing cases and decisions made in lower courts. Others were far more supportive and commended the Chief Justice “for calling on California’s three branches of government to deliver on California’s promise of opportunity and fair treatment for all.” (Natasha Minsker, ACLU of California’s Center for Advocacy and Policy).

Where do you stand? Was she speaking within her role as Chief Justice? Did she not go far enough? Did she go too far?

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