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Judges held hostage

Partisan GOP politics threaten a much-needed courthouse construction bill.

September 06, 2008

What do you do when California's chief justice writes an opinion you don't agree with? If you're Republicans in the Legislature, you vote to make sure that crime victims have to keep riding in elevators with criminal defendants, that jurors have to keep fighting traffic to reach courthouses as far as 30 miles from their homes, that judges continue to worry about the safety and security of everyone in their courtrooms.

Take that, Ronald M. George. Dare to issue a ruling that crosses some members of the chief justice's own political party, as George and a majority of the state Supreme Court did in the same-sex marriage ruling of May 16, and be prepared to have state GOP lawmakers attempt to vote down a sensible bill to fund much-needed courthouse construction and improvements without imposing any new burden on the state budget.

That's a budget, by the way, that these same Republicans have held up for nearly the first quarter of the current fiscal year. There are enough of them to do that, but fortunately that's still too few to block passage of SB 1407 by Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata (D-Oakland). The bill, if signed by the governor, would increase some criminal fines and civil fees to help pay back revenue bonds, as opposed to the sort of general obligation borrowing that the state indulges in with increasing frequency.

It's one thing to oppose the bill based on the argument that Californians who get speeding tickets or have to go to traffic school shouldn't get stuck with the burden of building courthouses. The argument is misplaced, but it is at least honest and straightforward. It's something quite different to punish jurors, litigants and everyone else who uses the court system as a political statement of protest against one or two high-profile decisions by the seven-member Supreme Court.

Congress has for years tried to interfere with federal courts in a similar fashion, but federal judges at least have the life tenures that shield their decisions from improper legislative-branch meddling. There is no such protection for state judges and justices, and this can leave the courts victims of internecine struggles between pandering conservative politicians and a chief justice who is in their view perhaps too moderate or too independent -- or, in a word that has gained frequency among Republicans of late, too much of a "maverick." Another Republican maverick from yet another branch -- Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger -- could send his party a clear message about this kind of meddling by signing the courthouse funding bill.

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