California's budget problems are threatening a constitutional crisis

A colleague of mine (Linh Hua) and I have been talking out an issue that has troubled me for some time now.  It occurred to me that there must be a constitutional limit of some sort to the underfunding of California's judiciary.  I didn't have any specific case in mind when the concept crossed my mind, and my discussions with other practitioners elicited general agreement without specific supporting authority.  Coincidentally, just as I began to look into this issue, a confirming answer of sorts dropped into my lap.

This evening (for publication on 2/24/2010), Joel Stashenko reports in the New York Law Journal that New York's highest court has held unconstitutional the failure to grant pay raises to judges for the last 11 years.  Joel Stashenko, Denial of N.Y. Judicial Pay Raise Is Ruled Unconstitutional (February 24, 2010)  The high court (the New York Court of Appeals) declared the de facto pay freeze a "crisis" that threatened the separation of powers.  Declining requests for an order mandating an immediate pay raise, the Court said, "By ensuring that any judicial salary increases will be premised on their merits, this holding aims to strike the appropriate balance between preserving the independence of the Judiciary and avoiding encroachment on the budget-making authority of the Legislature."

While the Court proceeded with caution, it also warned, "It [the Legislature] should keep in mind, however, that whether the Legislature has met its constitutional obligations in that regard is within the province of this Court," citing Marbury v. Madison, 1 Cranch 137 (1803). "We therefore expect appropriate and expeditious legislative consideration."

Writing for the 5-1 majority, Judge Pigott said, "Because the Separation of Powers doctrine is aimed at preventing one branch of government from dominating or interfering with the functioning of another co-equal branch, we conclude that the independence of the judiciary is improperly jeopardized by the current judicial pay crisis, and this constitutes a violation of the Separation of Power doctrine."

In California we don't just have a pay crisis, we have a funding crisis.  Our Courts are closed one Wednesday each month, and I've heard mention that an additional closure day is under consideration by some.  We've lost a complex litigation court in Los Angeles County, a court designed to better manage the burdens imposed by complex, multi-party litigation.  If the pay issue in New York is a constitutional "crisis," what California is experiencing is a constitutional debacle.  The judiciary is not just impaired here, it is hamstrung and handcuffed.  As participants operating within one of the presumably co-equal branches of government, we must be vigilant and speak out when it is clear that a failure by one branch imperils the unfettered operation of another.

I intend to continue speaking about this issue until the futility of it all depresses me into silence.