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SACRAMENTO � Chief Justice Ronald George on Tuesday warned legislators of dire consequences for the justice system in California if budget cuts continue to erode funding for the courts. In his annual State of the Judiciary address to a joint session of the Legislature, George made a budget pitch that seemed designed to tug at the political heartstrings of both Democrats and Republicans. For Democrats in particular, he offered up potential cuts in programs that benefit the poor and working class. And both sides were told crime victims, families and the business community could suffer if cuts to the court system went too deep. “We already are seeing an erosion in some services due to cuts that have been imposed to date,” George said. “This is not a matter of inconvenience to the courts; it is a matter of depriving individuals of the meaningful access to justice they desperately need.” George’s speech — while full of references to the courts’ accomplishments — was one of the gloomiest he’s delivered since becoming chief justice in 1996. It’s the first time in his tenure that the budget ax has loomed so menacingly over the courts. And George made a point of noting that the state’s ongoing financial crisis has meant reductions that “fall most harshly on families, children and civil litigants.” Echoing what judicial leaders have said for months, George explained how cuts jeopardize court accessibility and modernization. But in a new twist to that argument, George pulled out examples that seemed to speak directly to legislators’ political philosophies — and their relationships to voters and donors. Still, it was a tough audience. The speech was fairly well attended by legislators, but Assembly members and senators appeared distracted by talk of a resolution on the war in Iraq authored by Senate President Pro Tem John Burton, D-San Francisco. Republicans have criticized Burton’s resolution as being insufficiently supportive of President Bush. During George’s speech several legislators slipped out of the Assembly chamber to whisper on their cell phones amid rumors that Burton would attempt to push through the resolution as soon as George finished. Despite the distractions, George reminded legislators that corporations cited court delays as one of the reasons why they leave California — an issue near to Republicans and moderate Democrats. To illustrate his point, George said that San Francisco’s complex litigation program is in jeopardy. “Defunding this important program would send a most unfortunate message to injured plaintiffs as well as businesses interested in ensuring the speedy and effective resolution of their disputes,” George said. In an appeal that seemed aimed squarely at Democrats who hold the governor’s office and majorities in both the Assembly and state Senate, George pointed out that programs that help families, children and indigents were also being cut. Telling a story out of the Los Angeles Family Law Information Center, George said, “Among those who could not be helped was a mother whose 9-year-old child had not been returned by his father after a visit. The mother was unable to get help in obtaining the emergency order she needed to have her child returned home.” Like many state programs, the judicial branch has already taken a big hit during the state budget crisis. Davis’ proposal for next year has even more cuts, but, more important, the governor has proposed several funding shifts that would affect how the courts do business. So far, those ideas have been controversial in Sacramento. George urged legislators to back Davis. George promoted electronic court reporting — which stenographers have vowed to fight — and a court security fee, which some legislators have already spoken against. The chief also mentioned the idea of opening court security contracts to non-sheriffs, which the governor hopes will save at least $22 million. Beyond those ideas, George also wanted legislators to know that courts were trying to do their part. Expanding on an idea discussed at a Judicial Council meeting, George detailed an idea to have courts work harder to collect unpaid fees. “We are sponsoring legislation, currently proposed in a spot bill, SB 246, authored by Sen. [Martha] Escutia, which will be amended to create a statewide system to enhance collection of delinquent court-ordered fines,” George said. George ended the speech by telling legislators the courts are willing to cooperate and share the pain: “Working together, our three branches of government have vastly improved the ability of our courts to meet the needs of the public and to provide fair and accessible justice for all. The budget crisis . . . must not be allowed to undermine the public’s confidence in the administration of justice in our state.”

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