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As chief justices from around the nation gathered in San Francisco this week, the theme for their conference could easily have echoed the line that got Bill Clinton elected president in 1992 — it’s the economy, stupid! A common complaint heard Tuesday around The Westin St. Francis, site of the twice-yearly Conference of Chief Justices, was the belt tightening that almost every state and territory is undergoing these days because of an economy that’s still far from healthy. “The judiciary in nearly every state is suffering as we are in California,” Chief Justice Ronald George said in a hallway interview. “Some worse than California.” The justices are expected to address the crisis today by considering a series of resolutions addressing the budget problems. “Budget is the issue of the day,” Jonathan Lippman, chief administrative judge of the New York State Unified Court System, said during an interview. For the courts to fulfill their constitutional responsibilities, he said, they must be treated as an equal partner by the executive and legislative branches of government. “They have to give us the resources to do [our job],” Lippman said. “We’re the branch of government that doesn’t have a seat at the table when it comes to making budgetary decisions.” The conference, attended by about 40 chief justices from a majority of the states — as well as the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, American Samoa, Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands — got off to a high-profile start on Monday with a visit by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. The governor welcomed the visitors by encouraging them to “spend a lot of money here,” and going to great lengths to praise California Chief Justice George, the current president of the Conference of Chief Justices. George, who oversees a state court system that’s already assured a $70 million budget reduction this year, said in a short interview Tuesday that budget matters will be a serious topic of discussion today at the conference’s business meeting. “There will be two resolutions that relate to that, in regard to funding,” he said. Ronald Overholt, chief deputy director of the state’s Administrative Office of the Courts, said one of the resolutions would address ways that states could develop “common approaches” to economic and budgetary problems. He said the justices would also address the necessity of the courts to maintain basic services and ensure that the judiciary is treated as a separate branch of government, not as a department of the executive branch. That resolution appears to reflect the findings of a 20-page position paper adopted last month by the Conference of State Court Administrators and developed in conjunction with the Conference of Chief Justices. The paper calls on the judiciary to work hard at being fiscally prudent during the good times, so that the other branches of government don’t feel compelled to slash their budgets severely during the tough times. “A judiciary with a demonstrated track record of good governance and accountability, including wise use of public tax dollars,” the paper states, “is more likely to avoid unreasonable budget cuts and micro-management by the other branches that undermines the system’s ability to carry out its mission during difficult fiscal times. “The other branches cannot deprive the judiciary of the resources to carry out these functions,” it continues, “without violating its constitutionally assigned status as a co-equal and independent branch of government.” New York’s Lippman said the independence issue is an essential part of the debate. “This is part of our tripod system of government,” he said. “Without an independent judiciary, that system cannot survive.” Budget matters aren’t the only things being discussed this week. There were educational sessions Tuesday on electronic discovery and the principles of effective judicial governance and accountability, and today there is a seminar on the impact of NAFTA on state court judgments. Chief Justice George also said Tuesday that the conference gatherings give justices the ability to compare notes on how to run the courts. Many of California’s jury reform measures were taken from Arizona, he noted, while New York’s business courts have been evaluated as a model for California. Wisconsin Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson, interviewed outside one session, said her state adopted a New Mexico “ride along” system that lets tribal court judges sit with state court judges — and vice versa — in an effort to make the two more compatible. She learned about the program at a conference meeting. “I always come home with at least one idea that I put into effect,” Abrahamson said. She noted that she considers the conference meetings so important that she financed the trip from Madison out of her own pocket because of a statewide freeze on out-of-state travel expenditures. “I think it’s very valuable for the state,” she said. On a lighter side, several of the justices and their spouses — numbering more than 100 — attended a special Sunday night edition of “Beach Blanket Babylon.” Reportedly, headliner Val Diamond performed, even though it was her night off, and the show was tailored for the audience. In one scene, a cast member portraying home-decorating diva Martha Stewart reportedly warned the crowd that one of them might some day be judging her. It was a big hit. The three-day conference ends today.

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