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The judicial system: The feeblest branch

IN THEORY America’s three branches of government are equal. In practice the judiciary is the weakest, as Alexander Hamilton cautioned in “The Federalist Papers”, because it controls neither sword nor purse. Of late, state legislatures and executives have been closing their purses as they struggle to balance tight budgets. At the same time, the federal bench is being weakened by both stagnant salaries and frozen politics. This is now swelling dockets, delaying cases, and reducing access to the legal system.Ask, for example, Katherine Feinstein, the presiding judge of the San Francisco Superior Court (and daughter of Dianne, California’s senior senator). She says that her court narrowly missed “falling off a cliff” last month by getting an emergency loan. But she expects worse later in this fiscal year because California’s current budget, which has already cut court funding by $350m, contains a trigger for even more reductions. Between 15 to 28 of California’s 58 county courts could go over that cliff in the coming year, she thinks.How does a court go over the cliff? In unphotogenic slow motion, which makes the…

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