Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye is the chief justice on the California state Supreme Court.
Years ago, when I was a trial court judge in Sacramento, the husband of one of my court staffers murdered their two children in front of her, beat her and then killed himself. All of us were unaware of her problems at home, as well as the fear and shame that drove her into silence.
Soon after this tragedy, I began a “domestic violence court” — a specialized court that aids victims and holds offenders accountable by connecting the justice system with social service agencies. It’s a model that works. But, like everything else in the justice system, it only works if it has the trust, confidence and cooperation of all of the participants.
It is my concern for the trust and confidence in our state court system that prompted me last month to ask Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly not to make immigration arrests at or near courthouses. Our state courts are on the front line of justice in the United States: We handle more than 90 percent of the nation’s case filings each year. I am asking that immigration agents treat courthouses as “sensitive” areas — as they do schools, churches and hospitals.
In their response, Sessions and Kelly agreed with me that “the enforcement of our country’s immigration laws is necessary, and that we should strive to ensure public safety and the efficient administration of justice.” As a former prosecutor, a judge and the wife of a retired police officer, I also agree with them that law-enforcement officials strive to “perform their duties with the highest degree of professionalism and public service.”
We disagree, however, on where that enforcement should occur. My request is that they respect the safety needs of the state court system and those who access it. This goes to the core of our system of government, built on the principle of checks and balances. You don’t have to read the Federalist Papers or be fortunate enough to get a ticket to the musical “Hamilton” to recognize the elegant weave of checks and balances set up by our Founders. Our three branches of government are co-equal; our local, state and federal governments have overlapping authority. Each branch and each entity should take care not to act in a way that undermines the trust and confidence of another branch or entity.
We encourage the vulnerable to come to our courthouses for help. But immigration arrests, or the fear of arrests at or near courthouses, disrupt court activities and the lives of those seeking justice. The well-publicized immigration arrests at courthouses in Los Angeles and elsewhere have disrupted court business and deterred litigants. One judge said there was “near hysteria” among civil litigants recently when they thought immigration agents were about to raid a courthouse.
An attorney in a small, rural county who assists self-represented litigants with landlord-tenant problems, domestic violence issues, probate and guardianships said litigants are too afraid to come to court. I worry that both documented and undocumented immigrants will no longer cooperate with state and local law-enforcement agencies; crimes or civil wrongs will go unreported and communities will live in fear.
Some of the comments I’ve received after I sent my letter suggest that I am against enforcement of our immigration laws. I am not. I ask for sensible enforcement tactics that do not undermine due process, fairness and access to justice in our state court systems.