An independent judiciary is one of the cornerstones of a democratic society. The framers of the Constitution were keenly aware of the importance of an independent court system, establishing the judiciary as its own co-equal branch of government. The Framers were also aware of the vulnerability of the court system; Alexander Hamilton warned in the Federalist Papers that the judiciary “is in continual jeopardy of being overpowered, awed, or influenced by its co-ordinate branches.”
Governor Jerry Brown's 2015 budget called for increased funding for California's judicial branch, a positive step toward to returning the courts to stable footing and the level of funding required to assure all Californians of access to justice. While the porposed budget would mean more than $244 million in new investments in the judicial branch over a three-year period, there is still much more to be done to restore adequate funding to the court system. More than $1.1 billion was cut from the judicial branch budget after the statrt of the Great Recession in 2008, with severe impacts on court services for businesses and consumers alike. CAOC will contine to take lead on this issue.
More often than not the Court System is forced to balance its budget on the backs of the most vulnerable members of society. Budget cuts often close special court programs that deal with juvenile dependency, indigent defendants, drug addiction, veterans and victims of domestic violence. These vulnerable groups already face substantial barriers getting into court, and the current court funding crisis makes it even more difficult to seek justice. Closed courtrooms strain other social service systems, which are forced to absorb the needs of those waiting for justice. Long lines and crowded court dockets keep children in foster care and keep victims of domestic violence in abusive situations or shelters. The shortage of judicial resources ensures that many people will be unable to seek justice at all, and those who do will have a difficult time navigating a slower system.
Shortsighted budget solutions that harm the courts make it difficult for California to recover from the current financial crisis. Courtroom closures do not just cost court employee jobs, they wreak havoc on California’s business climate. With wait times in civil cases reaching six months for a hearing and increasing, a simple business dispute can create years of uncertainty for California business owners. An underfunded civil court system threatens to grind business to a halt in California and permanently stall financial recovery.
Courtrooms and communities across the state are feeling the pinch of the judicial budget crisis. In urban areas like San Francisco, budget cuts threatened to close a huge number of civil courtrooms in the city which could drive commerce on the west coast to a virtual standstill. In rural counties like Stanislaus, entire courthouses are closing permanently which forces rural residents to travel great distances to access justice. Court closures affect ever community, and every constituency. For the sake of our democracy and justice for all, California needs to take steps to ensure effective funding solutions are identified and embraced.