March 28, 2017

Chief Justice to Legislature: “The rule of law is being challenged”; speech draws national attention

In her annual State of the Judiciary address to the Legislature yesterday afternoon, Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye showed a willingness to discuss threats to the entire American system of government, not just to California’s judiciary.  In past addresses, the Chief Justice has criticized lack of funding for the state’s courts as compromising access to justice.  (E.g., here and here.)  She did that again this year, but her primary concerns were clearly broader.

Three years ago, the Chief Justice talked about “a different type of civil rights crisis,” one that is “not about the law,” but “about access to it.”  Yesterday, however, her focus was on the foundation of our society — the rule of law — and she warned, “the rule of law is being challenged.”  Cantil-Sakauye gave as examples of the failure of the rule of law the internment of her mother- and father-in-law — and 120,000 others — during World War II, the late 19th Century Chinese exclusion laws, and state laws legalizing forced sterilization.  Although all three branches of government were in place at those times, she said, “it was the forces of fear and prejudice that caused the rule of law to fail.”

Speaking once more of her recent letter to federal authorities asking that immigration agents not “stalk” California’s courthouses, the Chief Justice said that it was her “concern for the rule of law and checks and balances that prompted” her request.  Mention of the letter drew applause from many of the legislators.

The Chief Justice’s address and her letter have attracted considerable media attention, both in California and nationwide.  Derek Hawkins in The Washington Post today said that Cantil-Sakauye “is fast emerging as one of the Trump administration’s most vocal critics in the judiciary” and Alexei Koseff in the Sacramento Bee noted that yesterday’s “pointed remarks struck an unusually political tone for Cantil-Sakauye.”  There is similar coverage on CBS News, and in the San Francisco Chronicle, the Los Angeles Times, the Associated Press, The Recorder [subscription], and the Daily Journal [subscription].

The Chief Justice began her remarks by recognizing and thanking Justice Kathryn Werdegar, who will retire from the court in five months.

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