A “delicate balance” faces judges who step into the political arena to fight for adequate court funding, a Christian Science Monitor article asserts in examining the high profile taken by California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye.
As head of California’s state courts, she has assumed a role in the state’s budget debate, arguing that budget cuts totaling 25 percent over four years have left the courts in crisis (see Gavel Grab). Legal experts said the chief justice has acted within her rights, yet others have pointed to the need for judges to exercise caution.
“In general, I think it is dangerous for judges to interject themselves into politics, but in this case she is telling hard truths that need to be told that the public and legislators need to hear,” said Robert Pugsley, a professor at Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles.
Matthew Hale, a political scientist at Seton Hall University in New Jersey, said, “As judges become engaged in fundamental political debates … or reengaged in social issues like gay marriage and abortion the perception courts are not political could change.” He added, “The actions of Cantil-Sakauye in fighting budget cuts could continue to feed that trend.”
Nationwide, state courts are wrestling with court funding shortfalls, and the article mentions both the role that courts play in settling grievances and also the impact of budget cuts on access to justice.
“It is a national story because budget cuts are hitting many states,” said Barbara O’Connor, director emeritus of the Institute for Study of Politics and Media at California State University, Sacramento.
“At a time when citizens feel like that [they] have no rights and despise their elected officials, their one avenue of checks and balances against inequities of all types is being foreclosed,” she said. “Small claims courts, entry level courts, and criminal courts are closed to them as immediate recourse to their grievances. They also have less opportunity for legal representation at any level.”
To learn more about states coping with a budget axe, see the JAS issues page on the topic.