SAN FRANCISCO — Twenty-six years after graduating from the UC Davis School of Law, Tani Cantil-Sakauye was confirmed unanimously today (Aug. 25) to be the next chief justice of the California Supreme Court.
The vote by the three-member Commission on Judicial Appointments sent the historic appointment of the Filipina daughter of farmworkers to the state’s voters. If approved as expected on the November ballot, she would become the first Asian American to lead the state Supreme Court. She also would give the court its first female majority.
Cantil-Sakauye’s realization of the American dream and unlikely rise to the high court was recounted in a confirmation hearing that resembled more of a celebration of her many accomplishments — from a law degree at UC Davis, to former Gov. Deukmejian’s office, to a prosecutor who started in traffic court to judge for the last 20 years.
Many of the friends and legal mentors who attended or spoke on her behalf also underscored the significance of her Asian American background.
“It brings a tear to my eye when people talk about my grandparents and the history of Filipinos in California,” a beaming Cantil-Sakauye said immediately after the vote. “I can’t speak enough about how grateful I am and how full my heart is.”
She made a point to thank Gov. Schwarzenegger, who chose her to be chief justice, for what she called “the opportunity and adventure of a lifetime.” Schwarzenegger plucked Cantil-Sakauye from relative obscurity to succeed retiring Chief Justice Ron George.
Cantil-Sakauye, 50, graduated from the School of Law in 1984, four years after earning an undergraduate degree in rhetoric, also at UC Davis. She had been a Sacramento County Municipal Court and Superior Court judge for 14 years when Schwarzenegger appointed her to the 3rd District Court of Appeal in 2005. Both are Republicans.
State Bar rating: 'Exceptionally well qualified'
The commission’s hearing had been prefaced by an evaluation from a State Bar committee that gave Cantil-Sakauye the highest rating possible, “exceptionally well qualified.”
The bar’s Commission on Judicial Nominees Evaluation said Cantil-Sakauye has “a brilliant mind,” possesses the model judicial temperament and is immensely respected for her exceptional objectivity.
At the confirmation hearing at the state Supreme Court, two of Cantil-Sakauye’s appellate court colleagues, Presiding Justice Arthur Scotland and Justice Vance Raye, called her an extraordinary legal scholar and “deep thinker” who is guided by common sense and a strict adherence to the rule of law.
Raye, who hired a 25-year-old Cantil-Sakauye for Deukmejian’s legal team, said she was “wise beyond her years” even then.
“I marvel at the clarity of her thoughts as well as the force and power of her voice,” Raye told the commission.
UC Davis alumna Genevieve Dong said the historic importance of the appointment could not be “overstated” in a nation and state where Filipinos and other Asians experienced generations of discrimination.
“I believe perspective matters,” said Dong, president of the Filipino Bar Association of Northern California. “Perspective influences how a judge views a case.”
'Enduring symbol to women'
Joan Dempsey Klein, presiding justice of the 2nd District Court of Appeal and a member of the Commission on Judicial Appointments, told Cantil-Sakauye that she is positioned to become an enduring symbol to women in the legal profession and well beyond.
“Do you recognize the huge responsibility that you have to yourself and your gender … to set a standard that will remove any doubt that women can hold the job as chief justice?” asked Klein, one of the confirming commission’s three members.
“I stand on the shoulders of people like you,” Cantil-Sakauye answered.
Chief Justice George and Attorney General Jerry Brown serve with Klein on the Commission on Judicial Appointments.
Only two people testified against Cantil-Sakauye's nomination. E.T. Snell, a community activist from Hesperia, said Cantil-Sakauye had consistently failed to uphold the rights of the accused. Sacramento attorney Geoffrey Graybill accused her of bias toward women in domestic violence cases.
Cantil-Sakauye dismissed the allegations as “false, misinformed and misguided.”
On the Web
"Alumna tapped as chief justice: Cantil-Sakauye would set precedents for California Supreme Court" (Dateline UC Davis, July 23, 2010)
"Steinberg, professors rate Cantil-Sakauye well qualified for high court" (Dateline UC Davis, July 30, 2010)
Dean's Blog: "Confirming the new chief justice." Kevin Johnson of the School of Law provides a write-up and photos from the confirmation hearing.