First FilAm California chief justice will not seek reelection

by Ricky Rillera

| Photo via California Courts Website

NEW YORK – California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, the first Asian Filipina American and the second woman to serve as the state’s chief justice, announced on Wednesday, Jul. 27, that she would not seek reelection after 12 years of leading the state’s judiciary. She said she will “conclude my judicial service when my current term of office ends” on Jan. 1, 2023.

In a statement, she said, “I have said before that I hold my office in trust until it is time for the next leaders to protect and expand access to justice — that time is now.”

Cantil-Sakauye’s career spans 32 years – 12 as chief justice – which includes working on California appellate and trial courts. She has been appointed or elevated to higher office by three governors. In 1990, Gov. George Deukmejian appointed her to the Sacramento Municipal Court, and in 1997, Gov. Pete Wilson elevated her to the Superior Court of Sacramento County. In 2005, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger nominated her to the Court of Appeal, Third Appellate District. He also nominated her as chief justice in 2010. Following a general election on Nov. 2, 2010, an overwhelming majority of voters elected her to that position. She was sworn in as the 28th Chief Justice of California on Jan. 3, 2011.

When she took office on Jan. 3, 2011, her first duty was swearing into office Gov. Edmund G. Brown, Jr. in ceremonies in Sacramento. She also administered the oath of office to Attorney General Kamala Harris, Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones, and Associate Justice Andrea Hoch of the Court of Appeal, Third Appellate District.

Unlike the US Supreme Court justices and federal judges, California judges do not hold lifetime positions. Cantial-Sakauye would have had to run for retention by voters in this November’s election. The chief justice and the six associate justices are nominated by the governor and confirmed by the Commission on Judicial Appointments for a 12-year term.

A Sacramento native, Cantil-Sakauye is “a graduate of a public school, community college, and public university. She attended C. K. McClatchy High School and Sacramento City College before receiving her BA from the University of California, Davis, graduating with honors in 1980. She then attended UC Davis and its law school, receiving her JD in 1984.

Her Filipino-Portuguese father worked in sugar cane and pineapple plantations in Hawaii. Her mother, an immigrant from the Philippines, was a farmworker – sorting tomatoes and picking figs in California’s Central Valley. Later, they supported their four children with jobs as an instrument repairman at McClellan Air Force Base and an executive secretary for the state Department of Corrections.

“My first interaction with our justice system was when my family faced eviction from our home and my mother felt helpless. As the daughter of farmworkers, I experienced in my community what it was like to stand up for your rights and demand protections. As a wife I felt the impact of unjust Japanese Internment on my in-laws,” she said. “As a judge I saw the devastating effects of family violence and established the first court in Sacramento dedicated solely to domestic violence issues. As Chief Justice I continue to keep in mind the faces behind the cases and remain focused on the goal of providing all Californians with equal, fair, and accessible justice.”

In her retirement announcement, the chief justice put a spotlight on her family by acknowledging that “the support and encouragement of my family, my extended Filipino family, minority bar associates notably ions, and numerous role models and mentors throughout my public service career have enabled me to achieve and succeed even under sometimes difficult circumstances. I am grateful to them all.”

During her 12-year term, Chief Justice Cantil-Sakauye said her career as chief justice was “bookended by the great recession and administrative challenges at the beginning and now a historic judicial branch budget and the persisting difficulties of a global pandemic.”

Her vision of an accessible court system on every level for all Californians that reflects the people and communities that courts serve was realized through her several advocacies, from reforms on court funding models, fees, and procedures to diversity in the legal profession and providing a blueprint to revitalize civic education and engagement by sustaining public trust and confidence in the judicial system.

In choosing her successor, she said the governor “will have a diverse pool of exceptionally well-qualified jurists and legal professionals to choose from, and I believe the judiciary, the courts, and access to justice in California will be in good hands.”

Chief Justice Cantil-Sakauye is married to Mark Sakauye, a retired police lieutenant, and they have two daughters.

– Jay Domingo/PDM contributed to this story.

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