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Will California's Judicial and Legislative Branches Please Stop Fighting?

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Tani Cantil-Sakauye | Photo: State of California
Tani Cantil-Sakauye | Photo: State of California

Family fights are among the nastiest clashes. Something about them tends to make many of us cringe. "Why are they battling, they are family?" we may wonder. "Can't they rise above this?" we might question. Something in us wants peace, not war.

I have had the same cringe-worthy feeling as I watch the inter- and intra-branch feud between California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, other members of the judicial branch and members of the Assembly, particularly Assembly Speaker John Perez (D) and Assemblyman Charles Calderon (D). Assembly Bill 1208 is at the heart of the current feud. It would take away power from the Judicial Council, which is controlled by the Chief Justice, and give local trial courts more power over spending decisions. AB 1208, which would disperse control of the state judiciary, is supported by a coalition of lower court judges and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), on behalf of courthouse employees. Cantil-Sakauye is understandably less than thrilled, but her means of delivering her message of displeasure has left something to be desired among many observers.

While the Assembly attempts to pull the rug out from under the Judicial Council, the Chief Justice seems to characterize members of the state's lower house as manipulative, fibbing game-players. This month Cantil-Sakauye, in a speech to California's presiding judges, described the debate in the Assembly about the bill as "meritless, false claims." Cantil-Sakauye also sent Perez a list of more than a dozen purportedly false statements made during the floor debate about AB 1208.

The Assembly has hardly stayed above the fray. The author of AB 1208, Calderon, commented "You hear these kinds of comments from a rookie freshman (in the Legislature) who doesn't understand the process." Ouch.

The idea of the legislative branch reaching into the judicial branch and dictating how it should run things is less than appealing. A more desirable path would include Cantil-Sakauye coming to a détente with lower court judges, upset about budgetary decisions made by the Judicial Council.

There is something not only disappointing, but dispiriting about mudslinging between leaders in two branches of our government. The public has little faith in their elected legislators, and I sincerely hope the current spat doesn't bleed over into a lack of respect for our elected judges.

Jessica Levinson writes about the intersection of law and government every Monday. She is a Visiting Professor at Loyola Law School. Read more of her posts here.

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