California’s chief justice needs to double as savvy politician 

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s nomination of Tani Cantil-Sakauye as the state’s chief justice will make little, if any, difference in the ideological bent of the state Supreme Court.

By all accounts, Cantil-Sakauye, a Sacramento appellate court justice, is cut from the same centrist cloth as retiring Chief Justice Ron George — and Schwarzenegger himself.

The real question about her elevation is whether she can politically manage what has become an immense and fractious judicial bureaucracy ever since the state assumed responsibility for the lower courts.

The state takeover in the 1990s was one of the periodic overhauls of the state’s relationship with counties, freeing the latter of financial responsibility for the courts.

Suddenly, the Administrative Office of the Courts, which the chief justice heads, became a major state agency. It has 1,700 judges and 21,000 other employees and spends $4 billion a year. And George became a player in the state budget’s annual political game.

As the state’s fiscal situation deteriorated, George found himself vying with advocates for schools, prisons, health and welfare programs and other claimants on a much-­diminished state revenue stream.

He also found himself dealing with rebellious lower court judges who complained that they were being forced to close the courtrooms to save money as the AOC expanded its staff and as a troubled statewide court computer system piled up costs.

Finally, George became the overseer of a multibillion-dollar courtroom construction program fueled by a special bond issue — thus making him the umpire for competing local judges.

The $5 billion bond issue is to be repaid from additional fees and fines — money that the presiding judge of Los Angeles Superior Court says should be used to keep courtrooms open rather than building new ones.

Presiding Judge Charles McCoy said in a magazine article that the $53 million a year in extra fines and fees collected in Los Angeles County alone “would go a long way toward guarding the survival of court operations in the county.”

It made the usually affable George somewhat testy. “Much of the loudest, much of the shrillest criticism — and I’m being charitable here — are from people who aren’t fully informed,” George said in one interview. “A lot of this is an effort to dismantle the statewide administration of justice because with the statewide administration of justice comes accountability.”

George praised Cantil-Sakauye on Thursday for her “diplomatic skills” in dealing with other judges. She’ll need them.

— Scripps Howard News Service

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A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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