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Judicial independence is under threat and the states’ chief justices say they’re not going to take it anymore. Well, not exactly. But this week, when the states’ chief justices and the top state court administrators meet in Salt Lake City for their joint annual meeting, they will be talking about the threats to court budgets that come when they make decisions that upset other branches of government. “People are most familiar with judicial independence in decision-making,” said California Chief Justice Ronald M. George, the outgoing president of the Conference of Chief Justices. But there’s “another aspect-you need institutional independence, which involves adequate funding.” Transparency is the key to maintaining that independence, said Jonathan Lippman, New York’s chief administrative judge and the chairman of the policy committee of the Conference of State Court Administrators. “We are more vulnerable when we are not proactive, when we don’t show that we’re as accountable as any other branch of government.” Lippman noted that “[t]here is a tendency to see us as the enemy . . . .We can’t let them think that we’re just another political branch of government because we’re not, and we can’t wait for them to start asking questions-we have to proactively say this is who we are and this is how we govern ourselves.” And that involves opening books, meeting with government officials, politicians of all stripes and the public, said George. “We cannot tolerate fluctuations in funding that depend upon whether the legislative or the executive branches approve of the way we’re deciding cases.” George cited a graphic example. His predecessor authored the opinion that upheld the constitutionality of California’s term limits referendum, which also included a 38% cut in the legislative budget. The state Senate then cut the court’s budget by 38% and the Assembly almost went along, George recalled. “There was talk that we would have to exercise our inherent powers to compel state officials to expend money so that we could continue our core functions,” George said. It did not come to pass, but the lesson of keeping up good relations was not lost on George. “It’s a balancing act,” Lippman said. “But societies go by the wayside when the judiciary loses their independence. Look what happened in Nazi Germany.”

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