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COMMENTARY: Can You Name the Chief Justice of California’s Supreme Court? Get to Know Tani Cantil-Sakauye Before She Steps Down



Chief justice of California’s State Supreme Court, Tani Cantil-Sakauye. (Photo: California Courts Newsroom)

By Emil Guillermo

For the last 12 years, the chief justice of California’s State Supreme Court has been Tani Cantil-Sakauye, a history-making Filipino American, the first person of color and the second female ever to hold the position.

Of course, you can say her name, but just in case, here’s a pronouncer: Con-TEEL-Saw-ka-OO-yay.)

If a judge’s job is to stay above it all and concentrate on the work at hand, then the fact that Cantil-Sakauye is not exactly a household name testifies to her ability to have done her job exceedingly well — impartially. With hardly an objection. Without making the news.

That’s why I was shocked to hear Cantil-Sakauye’s announced her retirement on July 27 at age 62.

Cantil-Sakauye described the reaction from colleagues about news of her departure as “moans and groans and exclamations of concern and dismay and congratulations.”

But just marvel at what she’s left us. A state judicial environment where consensus is enabled in the pursuit of fairness under the rule of law.

Instead of a fragmented court constantly drawn into issues of rancor and division, California’s high court has been collegial and focused on its job. It’s a court that in Cantil-Sakauye’s words is now “solid and sustainable.” And perhaps that is the reason she has set a retirement date of January 1.

Appointed by then Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, Cantil-Sakauye took her oath in 2011.

She’s guided the court system as its top administrator through budget cuts to budget surpluses, through COVID-19 shutdowns to ideological stagnation.

Once seen as a stodgy conservative bunch, with Cantil-Sakauye at the helm the high court has evolved into an institution shaped by Governor Newsom and his predecessor Jerry Brown, both Democrats.

People forget that Cantil-Sakauye was a Republican who worked her way up in her hometown of Sacramento, from a county prosecutor to cabinet positions under Republican Gov. George Deukmejian. She was a state appellate judge before her appointment to the state’s high court.

She garnered national attention in 2017 when she criticized federal agents for arresting immigrants in California’s state courthouses. Cantil-Sakauye saw it as eroding trust in the state courts and called it “stalking.”

Later in December 2018, she left the Republican Party after watching the Senate hearings for Judge Brett Kavanaugh and registered as an independent.

It’s hard to imagine Cantil-Sakauye is done in January when she’ll be just 63.

Biden and Feinstein think that 63 is the infancy of a career in elected politics.

But politics would be a natural thing for Cantil-Sakauye, whose inspiring origin story has voter appeal.

Consider how her Filipino-Portuguese father, Clarence Cantil, worked the pineapple plantations before coming to California. Her mother, Mary Gorre, a Filipina, was a migrant worker who followed the crops. Cantil-Sakauye grew up humbly and has said publicly that she remembers her mother’s savings guiding her principles about hard work being rewarded and providing the opportunities in the American Dream.

More dominant were phrases like, “There for the grace of God go you,” and “You listen to everyone because everyone has something to say,” the latter she admits has helped her in her work to this day. And perhaps that explains her conservative, but empathic nature.

After two years at junior college, Cantil-Sakauye went to UC Davis for her B.A. She also got her law degree from Davis, all while working as a waitress and blackjack dealer in Lake Tahoe.

At age 35, and already moving up the conservative ranks, she was Ms. Cantil-Gorre until she married Mark Sakauye, a retired Sacramento police lieutenant.

Her hyphenated name merges some major Asian American histories. The Hawaii plantations, the California fields, and her husband’s story, the son of farmworkers who became farmers and then were incarcerated in concentration camps. Cantil-Sakauye said the stories of her in-law’s struggles made her more of an immigrant rights advocate.

Could that be a hint of the future?

For now, we have four more months to notice and appreciate Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye as she winds down the historic nature of her tenure.

Emil Guillermo is a journalist and commentator. See his work at http://www.amok.com

The post COMMENTARY: Can You Name the Chief Justice of California’s Supreme Court? Get to Know Tani Cantil-Sakauye Before She Steps Down first appeared on Post News Group. This article originally appeared in Post News Group.


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