“Separation of powers,” “judicial independence” and “rule of law” are abstract concepts with important implications. At an abstract level, most Americans cannot identify with these concepts. Nearly two-thirds cannot name the three branches of government; a third cannot name a single First Amendment right; three out of four don’t know the role of the judicial branch.

But these concepts do not just live in abstractions. As California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye has said, “

People have to know that government belongs to them, it runs on their participation and their leadership. But if they don’t ever get an understanding that government exists for them – three branches are there for them – then they’ll never feel they’re a part of it. And decisions will be made without them, and they’ll feel helpless – or they will mistrust the system.”

Despite the lack of civic literacy of these abstract concepts, Californians seem to recognize the need for a robust judiciary. A recent study of California voters conducted by the Great West Policy Research Center highlights findings on how Californians perceive the role of the third branch.

More than seven in ten of those polled believe that among the most important functions of California’s court system is to “hold the executive and legislative branches accountable to our State Constitution,” while more than two thirds of voters agreed that hearing criminal and public safety cases was also a high priority.

At the same time, a plurality of voters responded that public safety was the most important issue facing their community today. So, even while public safety tops the list of most important issues, more voters believe that the judiciary’s primary function is to balance political power and act as the third leg of the democratic stool.

In support of the belief in a critical governance role for the judiciary, nearly nine-in-ten voters agreed that “adequate funding is necessary to ensure that the courts can carry out its role of holding the state Legislature and Governor accountable to state Constitutional requirements.”

It’s clear that Californians rely on our judiciary to ensure and protect access to justice. Courthouses across California face constant pressure to adjudicate more and more cases each year, but struggle to find the resources to carry out that role. As a third co-equal branch of our state government, and one that Californians encounter most in their daily lives, it is up to us to encourage our leaders to support such an invaluable institution of our democracy.

For more on the stake that Californians have in a strong, independent judiciary, see this brief, award-winning video (first video on page) produced by the Foundation for Democracy and Justice.