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Children Sue Judicial Council, Claim Denial of Effective Counsel

By Robyn Hagan Cain on September 16, 2011 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Four California foster kids sued California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye in her capacity as Chair of the California Judicial Council alleging that “crushing and unlawful caseloads” frustrate the ability of Sacramento Dependency Courts to fairly and adequately hear their cases, and prevent court-appointed counsel from providing effective assistance.

Their suit seeks a Dependency Court for Sacramento’s abused and neglected children that meets basic due process requirements, and provides adequate, competent, effective counsel for the children of Sacramento County in dependency proceedings.

The Judicial Council oversees the statewide administration of justice in the state's courts. As Chair, the Chief Justice directs the Council's work, including its allocation of the judicial branch budget; promulgation of rules of court administration and procedure; and setting of priorities for the system's continual improvement.

The district court dismissed the complaint on abstention grounds; it concluded that, under O'Shea v. Littleton, federal courts may not entertain actions that seek to impose "an ongoing federal audit of state proceedings." The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed.

The Ninth Circuit noted that, in order to declare the current attorney caseloads unconstitutional or unlawful, the court would necessarily have to consider through a generalized inquiry how many cases are constitutionally and/or statutorily permissible, whether some types of cases require more investigation or preparation, which types of those cases deserve more resources, and how much time or attention is constitutionally and/or statutorily permissible.

The foster children argued that the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals should reverse the district court's ruling under Los Angeles Cnty. Bar Ass'n v. Eu, a 1993 case in which the L.A. County Bar Association claimed that average court delays and "speedy civil litigation" rights problems would be solved by a simple increase in the number of judges.

This case, by contrast, involves the impact of attorney caseloads with regard to effective counsel; remedies could involve substantial interference with the operation of the program, including allocation of the judicial branch budget, establishment of program priorities, and court administration.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals concluded that the declaratory relief that the Plaintiffs sought would intrude in the administration of the Sacramento County Dependency Court, and agreed that O'Shea mandated abstention.

This case is an unfortunate reminder of the practical effects of California budget cuts. Even if the Ninth Circuit had ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in the case, where would the Judicial Council find the funds to effect the necessary changes in the courts?

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