On July 27 California state Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye announced she is retiring and will not seek re-election this fall.
Cantil-Sakauye’s tenure made history. As the daughter of Filipino farmworkers in the Sacramento Valley, she became the first person of color and second woman to be appointed chief justice of the nation’s largest court system.
Appointed by former Governor Arnold Schwarzenneger, Cantil-Sakauye is credited with guiding the court through two huge crises — the Great Recession and the COVID-19 pandemic.
When the pandemic broke out in early 2020, she focused on keeping the court system functioning as best as possible.
“It was … unprecedented, and we had no playbook,” Cantil-Sakauye said. “All we know, all I know, is we were going to stay open. We’re staying open, dammit, and we’re going to find a way to make this work.”
With her upcoming retirement, the ideological makeup of the state court could change. Cantil-Sakauye was originally appointed as a Republican judge but changed to No Party Preference in 2018.
Gov. Gavin Newsom recently nominated Justice Patricia Guerrero to take her place. If she joins the court, she’ll be the first Latina chief justice in the state.
Cantil-Sakauye joined CapRadio’s Insight Host Vicki Gonzalez to talk about her legacy and some of the biggest challenges facing her successor.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
On her background and what lead her into a law career
Well, I came from a very strong Filipino community. Everyone, at least in that wave of immigrants, were farm laborers.
And so we were unified because my … mother picked crops and had grown up traveling from crop to crop, and there were hardships along the way, and changes in school and discrimination.
My grandmother had difficulties with [the] title to her home — and I was aware of these things. Aware that one of my uncles had to leave the state to marry his French wife.
So I grew up with a lot of strange happenings and a curiosity about that, even including being evicted from our home in downtown Sacramento in those days. And my mother’s feeling of just, disappointment and being awash in shock and sorrow that we were losing our family home …
I didn’t make that decision [to attend law school] early on [in my childhood] because no one in my family had gone on to college at that point. But I had seen the first Filipina lawyer who came to our community, and my mother took me to see her and she gave me the elbow and said, ‘you can do that.’ …
It was later on in community college when I was thinking about going on to law school.
On how she weathered both the Great Recession and the COVID-19 pandemic as chief justice
I took office as chief justice in 2010 and became the head of the largest law-trained judiciary, not only in the country but probably in the world, and the most diverse.
So we depend on public funding. And public funding … 12 years ago was being slashed and we didn’t know the end. They wouldn’t spend a dollar to save five. We were closing courtrooms, courthouses, appellate justices like myself and some trial judges, we took pay cuts.
We worked a day without pay in order to keep the doors open.
And so it really meant at that time to spread the word, we are in need of a … functioning judicial system, and we need to first clean ourselves up … Because while the Great Recession is going on, people’s lives are folding. We need to be open, and it took a few years, but we accomplished our goal … We made friends, we made comrades.
The people understand the branch better. And now, in my final year, we brought home the largest judicial branch budget in its history.
… We never had a playbook [for when the pandemic hit]. All we know, all I knew, is we are going to stay open. We are staying open, dammit, and we are going to find a way to make this work.
All of the courts were in various stages of accessing justice through remote technology, and we sped it up. We had the goodwill of the judges and the lawyers and the court staff, and we all rode in the same direction … We understood our public service role and we endeavored to do it.
Was it perfect? Could it have been much better? Sure. But at the same time, we were, as they say, on a bullet train and were throwing out the track in front of us.
I’m proud of the work we’ve done and how we’ve maintained … to keep the doors open. And now looking at best practices that we learn to keep and to use at the user-clients option.
On how she feels politics have changed over the course of her tenure
I believe definitely, we’ve seen some policies change in the last decade, and that’s natural and fluid and important, and that’s necessary.
Every generation decides how it’s going to craft the laws that guide its community, its society — and that’s something I respect as a jurist and respect as a person. At first glance, I may think this is not what I’m used to, but I don’t know that it’s wrong.
And so I think it’s up to the decision-makers who are answerable to the public and their constituents to decide what they think is the best direction for California.
And as jurists say, we often say in some of our more controversial opinions, we say ‘we do not opine on the wisdom of this policy,’ because we just don’t. That’s not our role in a democracy.
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