Raising the Bar
An Interview with California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye
PHOTO BY DIANE BALDWIN
California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, middle, mingles with guests before her discussion at the RAND headquarters in Santa Monica, California, on April 17, 2012.
Sworn in on January 3, 2011, as California’s 28th chief justice, Tani Cantil-Sakauye is the first Asian-Filipina American and second woman to serve in that role. In a wide-ranging interview at the RAND Corporation, she discussed the importance of collaborative courts, her efforts to help the judiciary deal with the state’s budget crisis, and other areas of focus. Below are some of her responses to questions from Lindsey Kozberg, RAND’s vice president for external affairs.
At its highest, in 2008, the budget for the California courts was $4 billion. The budget for next year is proposed to be about $3.3 billion. That’s a cut of about $653 million over four years. How do you go about securing funding, and are there champions who help you out?
We went to the Department of Finance this summer and said, “We have a plan for going forward, and here it is: We’ve contacted the attorneys who’ve supported us in a fully funded judiciary, and we’ve asked them if they could do their part with some kind of increase in fees or fines. Then we went to the trial courts and said we need you to somehow operationalize an additional $100 million of cuts. We will also look in our dwindling pockets of reserves for another $50 million. And then we went to the governor’s office and said we need a $100 million restoration. Together, with the attorneys’ help in fees and fines, with the court’s operationalizing $100 million, with us finding another $50 million, and with a $100 million restoration, we have a $300 million restoration plan. We think we can survive on $300 million more to our branch, even if you cut us $653 million.”
So we are actively working to seek restoration from the general fund of $100 million that we think will help us function. The attorney groups, the bar associations, and even business groups have been our great supporters. The attorneys know that they are unable to represent their clients if the judicial branch is not fully functioning.
Before becoming chief justice, you presided over a collaborative court in Sacramento dedicated solely to domestic violence issues. Can you talk about that experience?
In Sacramento, the district attorney knew that domestic violence was a huge problem in the community that was going under the radar. Although people were skeptical that a collaborative court was needed or could sustain itself, we created it and ended up running a jammed courtroom with over 200 cases per day from eight in the morning to six in the evening. It got to the point where I knew families. I knew what the situation was. I knew of the children. I felt for the first time, as a judge, really tied into the community. We found that if the core family was being tended to, the collateral problems—juvenile delinquency and minor crime—also dissipated in that family.
being tended to, the collateral problems —
juvenile delinquency and minor crime —
also dissipated in that family.”
— California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye
So tell us about your work on suspensions and expulsions in schools.
My first direction to the state Judicial Council has been to establish partnerships with schools to provide a “restorative justice bridge” to ensure that kids who have been suspended or expelled are put back in school and do not have their school lives disrupted by being put into the juvenile justice system or sent to juvenile hall. The other aspect of this has to do with civics education. We have a lot of middle and high school students who don’t understand the separation of powers in government between the executive, legislative, and judicial branches. Studies show that more students can name the Three Stooges than the three branches of government and that students can name all the judges on “American Idol” but not one judge on the U.S. Supreme Court. As a society, we depend on our children to become the next group of leaders. We need them to understand that if we pass legislation to improve education, housing, health care, or business, the promise of that legislation is illusory if there is no way to enforce the law. In 2013, we hope to roll out an education initiative to get civics education back into middle and high schools, maybe not as a core class in the curriculum, but by integrating it into other core classes, such as social studies, English, and math.
Editor's Note: After the chief justice’s April appearance at RAND, the California legislature passed and the governor signed a state budget that imposed an additional $544 million in cuts on the judicial branch for the 2012–2013 fiscal year—on top of the $653 million from the prior years. Trial courts will have to absorb a $285 million cut, primarily through use of reserve funds, even though many of these funds are already committed to covering previous cuts or for needed court improvement projects. Another $240 million will be taken from the court construction fund, freezing up to 31 courthouse projects for a year or more. The Judicial Council and Administrative Office of the Courts were cut by $15 million, with another $4 million to be cut from statewide administrative entities, the Supreme Court, and courts of appeal.