California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye paid her first official visit to El Dorado Hills on Aug. 23 and demonstrated the chutzpah that’s become the hallmark of her rapid ascension in the state judicial system. She came bearing grim budget news.
The feisty chief justice has been on the job for just 20 months, and has overseen two consecutive years of judiciary budget slashing that turned her $4 billion “third and equal” branch of state government into a $3 billion branch.
Adding insult to injury, revenue generated by the judicial branch to renovate or replace outdated, overcrowded and unsafe courthouses around the state was raided by the state both years in a shell game of loans and fund shifts that cost the courthouse construction fund an estimated $1 billion, with a permanent $50 million annual raid of the fund beginning in 2013-14.
The resulting reprioritization of previously approved courthouse projects, including the replacement of Placerville’s historic main street icon, will play out in a three-day hearing starting Sept. 5 in San Francisco that will either kill or pause some, and likely reduce funding for the survivors.
Cantil-Sakauye, 52, spent her El Dorado County morning in Placerville eeting with local court officials, then retired to the Serrano Country Club for a county Bar Association lunch where she delivered an impassioned plea for the restoration of judicial funding.
Local judges and the attorneys that routinely stand before them joined state and local court officials, local elected officials including all four west slope supervisors and other luminaries who came to hear and perhaps meet the stereotype-defying, first-ever Filipina-American chief justice.
County Presiding Judge Suzanne N. Kingsbury introduced Cantil-Sakauye as “a tireless advocate for the courts and the judicial branch” who “didn’t have the good fortune to assume this role during good financial times,” but has “risen to the challenge with steely determination.”
The chief justice appeared comfortable before her peers, tossing casual but sincere “shout-outs” to members of her Judicial Council, Interim Administrative Director Jody Patel and Third Appellate District Court of Appeal Justice Harry Hull.
She praised the county court system and presiding Superior Court Judge Kingsbury specifically for “doing more with less,” then directed most if her post-luncheon comments at the two-year gutting of state judicial funding that now jeopardizes trial court operations and courthouse renovations and replacements throughout the state.
A new Placerville Courthouse adjacent to the jail on Forni Drive was approved in 2009, but the site has yet to be procured.
“I know the construction of the courthouse is near and dear to you all,” she said on Thursday. “That will be considered … in balance with the bigger perspective of the needs of all the courts.”
The effusive chief justice evoked Rodney Dangerfield at one point, calling for “a little respect” for her third, co-equal branch of government, and later mimicked a late-night infomercial, deadpanning “but wait, there’s more,” while explaining the complex shell-game of funding shifts and loans that has put the judicial branch “more than $1 billion in solution to the general fund in the last year alone.”
The bloodletting began long before she took office in January 2011. The state had already cut $300 million from the judicial branch, according to Zlatko Theodorovic, finance director for the Administration Office of the Courts.
The serious surgery began in the 2011-12 fiscal year, when the courts’ operational funding was slashed by an unprecedented $350 million. The construction fund was also raided for $310 million, followed by loans totaling $440 million, according to Theodorovic.
The 2012-13 budget continued the evisceration, carving out another $544 million in operations and construction funding.
In her brief tenure as chief justice, the judicial branch’s slice of the state General Fund has dropped from 3.4 percent to 2.1 percent, she said. “For that we must provide justice to 38 million Californians … and your caseloads haven’t gotten smaller.”
Just the opposite, in fact, due to “lost jobs, homes and services” that have strained “families, businesses and children,” she said.
She recalled the 2002 legislation that made the judiciary responsible for the courthouses and subsequent legislation that funded improvement or replacements of 500 courthouses, raising roughly $310 million per year.
“We didn’t go to the General Fund for that” she said. “We did it by raising fines and with the help of the attorneys who agreed to pay higher filing fees.
“That pot of money, generated entirely by the judicial branch, has been borrowed or taken for the General Fund,” she said.
She praised organizations that have joined her call for judicial funding restoration, including the “Open Courts Coalition,” “One Justice” and the “Bench Bar Coalition,” a group of lawyers and judges who swarm legislators’ offices advocating for the judicial branch.
These advocacy groups are important because the judicial branch doesn’t generate campaign contributions or elicit votes, she said, “and never should we.”
The drama plays out next week in San Francisco, when sponsors for 31 of the most critical projects will make 15-minute pitches before the Court Facilities Working Group during a three-day public hearing.
Presiding Judge Kingsbury will make the case for El Dorado County, with a supporting cast that may include Supervisors John Knight or Jack Sweeney, who make up the Board of Supervisors’ ad-hoc Placerville Court Relocation Committee.
Kingsbury will be armed with a county offer to give the state the 6-acre court site in an even trade for the return of the temporary court location in Building C, freeing up $2.7 million in the facilities funds allocated for site acquisition. To sweeten the pie, the county is also offering $1.5 million in road and driveway improvements which will align Ray Lawyer Drive with the jail/court driveway.
“They’re looking to see which projects haven’t really gotten off the ground and might be eliminated,” said Kingsbury. “Others are farther along and there’s really no going back. We understand that we might get paused, but our argument is that there are economic advantages to lock in the plan now by finalizing the site procurement.”
Knight described the offer as “positioning ourselves in a positive light” against competing projects that are farther into the site acquisition, CEQA and construction planning process.
“We desperately need a safe and secure environment where we can operate efficiently,” said Kingsbury.
Putting the court adjacent to the jail would save the county millions of dollars, long term, the cost of transporting prisoners to the current courts, which contain no holding cells, and guarding them while they are there.
The hearing will be held in the Judicial Council Board Room, 455 Golden Gate Avenue, San Francisco on Sept. 5, 6 and 7. El Dorado County’s time slot is Sept. 5, between 12:30 p.m. and 3 p.m.
A recent audit of the Courthouse Capital Program will also be discussed at the hearing.
The Working Group hopes to make final recommendations to the Judicial Council on Sept. 26, but project-specific decisions are likely to extend into 2013.
The Judicial Council sponsored a video, “California Courthouse Construction: Immediate and Critical Needs,” available on YouTube, that captures the conditions at some of the worst courthouses in the state.