Becoming chief justice of California’s judicial branch was not what Tani Cantil-Sakauye envisioned for her future, “I never saw myself as leading the branch.”
“I started out my career as a deputy district attorney, and I was always the only woman, and generally the only person of color, in the courtroom. Women weren’t in the courtroom a lot. And there were very few women judges, maybe two or three.”
Nominated in 2010 by former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Cantil-Sakauye became the 28th chief justice of the Supreme Court of California in January 2011.
She is the first Asian-Filipina American and the second woman to serve as the state’s chief justice.
The Postsecondary Pathway
Born in Sacramento, Cantil-Sakauye started her postsecondary education at Sacramento City College (SCC). Her parents’ advice did not include attending law school.
“My father wanted me to learn to type because he said, ‘I want you to be a secretary, like your mother.’ My mother didn’t have job specific advice. She just said things like, ‘Everyone has something to contribute. All work is worthy. If you get your foot in the door, get your foot in the door. That’s what matters.’”
Possibilities opened up after Cantil-Sakauye got involved at SCC. “I joined the speech and debate team to travel. You had to get on the team and you had to win in order to keep your spot on the team. I had a great time. That changed everything.”
She continues, “I competed against other people and some of them were men. They were all going to law school. We would be in these events and I would beat them.”
“When they would tell me that they were going to law school, I’m thinking, ‘Well, I could probably go to law school.’”
‘I didn’t know a single lawyer going into law school’
After completing her B.A. at University of California, Davis, Cantil-Sakauye spent time in the Philippines – her ancestral homeland – and then attended the university’s School of Law – commonly known as King Hall.
“I didn’t know what a lawyer was, but I thought law school would tell me. I didn’t know a single lawyer going into law school,” says Cantil-Sakauye.
“I didn’t understand why we were learning all of this subject matter. How does evidence, civ pro [civil procedure], contracts, and property work? I asked another person and they said, ‘I don’t know.’ So, we were figuring it out.”
Cantil-Sakauye explains, “I just knew that I wanted to get through law school, graduate, pass the bar [exam]. To that end, I didn’t know if I could do it and I didn’t know that I would be good at it. But Davis was a school where people were supportive of one another. It was such a warm environment. It made me think that being a lawyer would also be rewarding if it was anything like Davis Law.”
After earning her J.D., Cantil-Sakauye worked as a deputy district attorney for the Sacramento County District Attorney’s Office. Her judicial career started in 1990 when then-Gov. George Deukmejian appointed her to the Sacramento Municipal Court.
In 1997, she began her tenure with the Superior Court of Sacramento County, establishing and presiding over the first court in Sacramento focused on domestic violence issues.
The Next Chapter
Last year in July, Cantil-Sakauye announced she was not seeking re-election and ending her term at the beginning of 2023.
Upon her announcement, Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a statement, “A fierce defender of access to the courts, [Chief Justice Cantil-Sakauye] fought against immigrant enforcement raids at courthouses targeting vulnerable victims and witnesses of crime.
During the pandemic, her tireless efforts modernized operations and expanded access to services at California’s courts, while retaining jobs and safe in-person access for those who need it.
Chief Justice Cantil-Sakauye has been a leading voice for bail reform, calling out its disproportionate impacts on low-income people, and has raised awareness about the unfair financial hardships caused by fines and fees on those unable to afford them.”
Cantil-Sakauye now leads the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) as president and CEO. She explains, “We do research and surveys and provide objective information to inform, amplify, clarify policy in California to make California’s policy better for all Californians.”
“I wanted to give a go at PPIC because the work they do is so important. It’s important to be on the front end of policy before it becomes law because I have been 32 years on the back end of laws that didn’t quite accomplish what they intended to accomplish – policies that were well-meaning, but not quite fully informed.”
In addition, Cantil-Sakauye will join ADR Services, Inc. later this month providing mediation services.
Looking back on her leadership role on the state’s highest court, Cantil-Sakauye says, “I think we created, in the last decade, a powerful judiciary that owns its name, is a co-equal branch, and does positive things and acts on behalf of all Californians. I’m proud of it.”
As far as advice for future leaders, Cantil-Sakauye says bring authenticity to the effort, “You shouldn’t model yourself after anyone. You shouldn’t try to fill anyone else’s shoes.”
“Keep showing up every day, doing your best every day, and speaking out. Eventually it accumulates. Even if you feel that you’re not changing the world, you’re changing yourself.”
Honored for a Career Dedicated to Justice
For the past 49 years, the Los Angeles-based legal services nonprofit Bet Tzedek has worked to ensure that everyone in the community has equitable access to justice. Bet Tzedek means “house of justice” in Hebrew, and in the organization’s own words, they provide “justice, stability, and hope to those experiencing discrimination, disparities, and exploitation.”
Each year, Bet Tzedek honors those who reflect those values at its annual gala. This year, Bet Tzedek presented former chief justice Cantil-Sakauye with the 2023 Rose L. Schiff Commitment to Justice Award for her remarkable career as an attorney, a judge, and an advocate, particularly for those who have suffered domestic violence or have faced legal issues around immigration.
Watch more of her remarkable career in this WorkingNation video.