July 23, 2011

Budget cuts and licensing lawyers

Two recent news stories share a common link. Or, at least, I see a link.

Most prominent is the drastic reduction in funding for the courts, a topic we’ve commented on frequently. The Judicial Council yesterday approved cuts of 8.6% for the trial courts, 9.7% for appellate courts, and 12% for the Judicial Council and the Administrative Office of the Courts. As Maura Dolan reports in the Los Angeles Times, the “cutbacks . . . will close some courthouses, reduce court hours, and delay civil trials, custody decisions and divorces in some counties.”

[UPDATE: California Courts News has this video report on the Judicial Council meeting.]

The other story appeared several weeks ago in the Daily Journal [subscription required]. The paper reported on an undocumented man whose parents brought him to the United States when he was 17 months old and who has now graduated from law school and passed the California bar exam. The State Bar is evaluating whether he should be admitted to practice law. (See related San Francisco Chronicle and ABA Journal articles.)

So, what’s the connection? The judiciary as an independent, co-equal branch of government.

The lawyer-licensing question may turn on the status of the California Supreme Court, which is responsible for accepting applicants to the state bar. A federal law prohibits state “agencies” from granting licenses to undocumented persons. Is the Supreme Court merely a state agency? In the budget process, the Legislature and Governor seem to treat it that way. Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye recently remarked, “When I go to the legislature, which turns over one-third every year, and I speak to them about the importance of the branch, they aren’t really sold on the idea.” It’s apparently a recurring problem. Former Chief Justice Ronald George said just before his retirement at the end of last year, “When I first went to Sacramento, I was asked which agency I was with and who I reported to. I said, ‘You don’t get it. We are a separate, co-equal branch of government.’ They all get that now.” Or they used to.

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