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Governor nominates ‘a living example of the American dream’ to be the next chief justice

Staff Writer

Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye
Tani Cantil-Sakauye
is the governor's
nominee for
Chief Justice

Moving swiftly to replace retiring Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald George, Gov. Schwarzenegger nominated appellate Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye to the state’s top judicial office last month.

Although Cantil-Sakauye’s name had not appeared on any of the published short lists of candidates for the job, the governor took just a week to make his choice. “Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye has a distinguished history of public service and understands that the role of a justice is not to create law, but to independently and fairly interpret and administer the law,” Schwarzenegger said, calling his pick “a living example of the American Dream.” If confirmed by the voters in November, Cantil-Sakauye will become California’s first Filipina chief justice.

At a press conference shortly after her nomination was announced, Cantil-Sakauye said, “I am humbled by the experience, I am grateful for the opportunity and I am mindful of the public trust." She called her nomination “a dream come true.”

Cantil-Sakauye, 50, has been an associate justice for the Third District Court of Appeal in Sacramento since 2005 and has nearly 20 years of experience on the bench. She was first appointed to the municipal court in 1990 at the age of 31.

“She’s very smart, very hard-working and has an incredible amount of judicial experience,” said Kevin Johnson, dean of the UC Davis School of Law. Noting that Cantil-Sakauye will be the fourth woman on the court, giving it a female majority, he said her appointment “will send a powerful signal” to women.

Describing her as smart and personable, Johnson said Cantil-Sakauye “will bring her collegiality with her. It will help her maneuver through the court’s various issues, judicial opinions and administrative matters.”

George appointed Cantil-Sakauye to the Judicial Council and named her chair of a key committee on financial accountability and efficiency, which oversees the Administrative Office of the Courts. Although he declined to say if he recommended her to the governor as his replacement, he said “she has truly been a star” on the Judicial Council and he cited her “great personal attributes and compelling life history.” George said the chief justice job “requires very special skills,” including the ability to interface with judges throughout the state as well as to deal with the governor and the legislature.

Cantil-Sakauye “has remarkable administrative and political and diplomatic skills,” George continued, “which to me are equally important with the scholarly and intellectual skills we assume a justice will have.”

Mike Belote, a lobbyist for California Defense Counsel who knows Cantil-Sakauye, said she is, “by everyone’s estimation, moderate, pragmatic, non-ideological, and has many of same qualities that Ron George has . . . . She is firm but unfailingly polite and gracious.”

He acknowledged the heavy administrative burden borne by the chief justice but noted that the person who holds the top job also plays an important role in forging consensus on the court.

A native of Sacramento, Cantil-Sakauye is the daughter of a Filipina mother who was a farm worker and a Filipino/Portuguese father who worked in Hawaii’s sugarcane and pineapple plantations before coming to California. She graduated from UC Davis and its law school, becoming the first in her family to receive undergraduate and law degrees. Because she couldn’t find a law job, however, she dealt blackjack in Reno for a short time, until she joined the Sacramento district attorney’s office in 1984. She later became deputy legal affairs secretary and then deputy legislative secretary to Gov. Deukmejian, who named her to the municipal bench. She was a superior court judge from 1997-2004, presiding over civil and criminal assignments and presiding over the county’s first domestic violence court. She has served as an associate justice for the Third District Court of Appeal in Sacramento since 2005.

A Republican, Cantil-Sakauye is “very much in the judicial mainstream,” Johnson said, describing her as thoughtful and moderate. He said he could not predict how she might rule on such hot-button issues as gay marriage and abortion, but he said, “I’d have a hard time viewing her as an idealogue in any way.”

Cantil-Sakauye said she keeps a statue of Themis, the goddess of justice, in her office, which serves to remind her, “that what justice means to the public is that courts right the wrongs. It vanquishes the indignities and provides a forum for everyone to be heard.”

Cantil-Sakauye must be vetted by the Commission on Judicial Nominees Evaluation, which rated her “qualified” when it appraised her for the appellate court. The Commission on Judicial Appointments has scheduled an Aug. 25 hearing to consider the appointment, and if confirmed, her name will appear on the Nov. 2 ballot for a 12-year term beginning Jan. 2, when George’s term ends.

Cantil-Sakauye has been a board member of several nonprofit organizations, been active in numerous professional community organizations, and has received many awards including honors from the Sacramento Domestic Violence Coordinating Council, the 2005 President's Award from the Sacramento Asian Bar Association and awards from youth groups.

Cantil-Sakauye is married to police Lt. Mark Sakauye and the couple have two daughters.