Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Why California's Chief Justice Is Taking on the Legislature

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Why California's Chief Justice Is Taking on the Legislature

Article excerpt

As head of the California court system, state Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye is in a power struggle with lawmakers. It points to a delicate balance for judges.

The chief justice of the California Supreme Court has injected herself into the state's budget debate, saying that the state's courts are in crisis after seeing their budget cut by 25 percent in four years.

The comments by Tani Cantil-Sakauye highlight the question of when it is appropriate for judges to become involved in politics.

In this case, experts say Justice Cantil-Sakauye is well within her rights. As the head of the state's Judicial Council, which directs policy for the California courts, she has an advocacy role beyond her post as chief justice.

But with courts playing a delicate and crucial role in the arbitration of the recently reinvigorated culture wars, judges might need to be careful, others add. Courts still hold a comparatively high level of public trust, but that it precisely because they are seen as being above politics, says Matthew Hale, a political scientist at Seton Hall University in Orange, N.J.

"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 says. "The actions of Cantil-Sakauye in fighting budget cuts could continue to feed that trend."

It is a fight, however, that needs to be fought, say many legal analysts. Budget cuts are taking a toll on the judicial system in states nationwide, and judges need to speak up, they add.

"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," says Robert Pugsley, a professor at Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles.

Her remarks were delivered Monday in her first "state of the judiciary" speech since being appointed and are part of an ongoing power struggle between herself, as head of the Judicial Council, and some lawmakers. A few weeks ago, she suggested that legislators were on the verge of violating the separation of powers between the Legislature and the courts. …

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