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Why California's chief justice is taking on the Legislature

As head of the California court system, state Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye is in a power struggle with lawmakers. It points to a delicate balance for judges.  

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California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye thanks her family for the support near the end of her address at the Legislature on Monday afternoon, at the California State Capitol in Sacramento, California.

Jose Luis Villegas/The Sacramento Bee/AP

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The chief justice of the California Supreme Court has injected herself into the state’s budget debate, saying that the state’s courts are in crisis after seeing their budget cut by 25 percent in four years.

The comments by Tani Cantil-Sakauye highlight the question of when it is appropriate for judges to become involved in politics.

In this case, experts say Justice Cantil-Sakauye is well within her rights. As the head of the state’s Judicial Council, which directs policy for the California courts, she has an advocacy role beyond her post as chief justice.

But with courts playing a delicate and crucial role in the arbitration of the recently reinvigorated culture wars, judges might need to be careful, others add. Courts still hold a comparatively high level of public trust, but that it precisely because they are seen as being above politics, says Matthew Hale, a political scientist at Seton Hall University in Orange, N.J.

“As judges become engaged in fundamental political debates … or reengaged in social issues like gay marriage and abortion the perception courts are not political could change,” he says. “The actions of Cantil-Sakauye in fighting budget cuts could continue to feed that trend.”

It is a fight, however, that needs to be fought, say many legal analysts. Budget cuts are taking a toll on the judicial system in states nationwide, and judges need to speak up, they add.

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