California chief justice warns rule of law 'challenged'

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — Eroding trust in institutions and polarization are challenging the rule of law, California's chief justice told state lawmakers Monday.

Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye emphasized the importance of maintaining the balance of power among the branches of government during her annual state of the judiciary address.

"The rule of law means that we as a people are governed by laws and not by a monarch," she told the joint session of the Legislature. "Our values, our rules and our laws are being called into question, and all three branches of government and the free press are in the crosshairs."

The country remains deeply divided after the bitter presidential election last year. President Donald Trump, who has called the press the enemy of the American people and questioned the legitimacy of the country's courts, has by far the lowest approval rating from the opposing party of any new president in the past 30 years, according to a February report from the Pew Research  Center.

Cantil-Sakauye, an appointee of Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, did not mention Trump in her speech but warned that division in the country could be detrimental to democracy.

The audience of mostly Democratic lawmakers burst into applause when she mentioned a letter   she sent to members of Trump's cabinet earlier this month asking federal agents to stop making immigration arrests in courthouses. She told lawmakers she worried that such arrests erode public trust in the judicial branch and impede residents' access to justice.

"I am afraid that that will be the end of justice," she said. "Communities will be less safe and victimization will continue."

She told the joint session of the Legislature that the judicial branch helps ensure equality and asked for more funding for California courts.

"The judiciary is often the forum for the vindication of individual liberties, equal access to justice and the rule of law," she said. "To keep our checks and balances intact, we need resources to provide justice for people who need it."

In the past, Japanese internment and a law excluding Chinese immigrants represented failures of the rule of law, she said. But she also noted examples where California courts led the way in promoting equality, including California court decisions permitting an immigrant living in the country without legal permission to practice law in the state and allowing interracial marriage.

She cited more recent examples of progress the California judiciary has made, too, including efforts to provide options for pretrial release other than bail and a new website with immigration resources.

Cantil-Sakauye also praised Justice Kathryn Werdegar, who announced earlier this month that  she would retire in August. Werdegar, who was appointed in 1994 by Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, "served with brilliance and clarity of pen," Cantil-Sakauye said.

Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, will name her replacement.

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