Forty days into her term as chief justice of the California Supreme Court, Tani Cantil-Sakauye’s message to first-year UC Davis law students was this: be yourself.
Doing that, she said, lessens the pressure of life’s big choices.
“You just have to be who you are, because it frees other people to be who they are. You may get people who don’t approve of that, but it’s a big world,” said Cantil-Sakauye during a talk at the UCD Conference Center on Friday afternoon.
She told Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s staff much the same thing when she interviewed for the position.
“I cannot spend the next 12 years of a judicial career being someone I’m not,” Cantil-Sakauye remembered saying at the time. “So this is who I am. And if that’s what you’re looking for, that’s great. If not, I understand.”
The 51-year-old Sacramento native earned both her undergraduate and law degrees from UCD. A Filipina-American, she is the first minority and second woman to lead the court.
“You can have everything,” she told students when asked about being a judge and mother of two daughters, “just not all at once.”
Cantil-Sakauye said that she “worked like a demon” after leaving law school. She pursued jobs, she joked, like a cougar stalking a lamb at a watering hole.
She cut her teeth as a deputy district attorney, then went to work for the administration of Gov. George Deukmejian in 1988. At bill-signing time, she often worked until 5 a.m., seven days per week.
Deukmejian decided not to seek a third term. He appointed Cantil-Sakauye to a municipal court judgeship in 1990.
Four years later, at 35 years old, she married Sacramento police officer Mark Sakauye. It was only then, she said, that she allowed herself to slow down.
When she had her first daughter, she was forced to ask a roomful of mostly male colleagues to vote on how much maternity leave should could take.
“I ran a huge volume court for nine years. It was chaotic. We had 200 people on the calendar every day. It was fun,” she said. “But at the end of the day, I would tell people, ‘I’ve gotta pick up my kid — chop chop chop chop.’
“I found out, the attorneys were doing the same thing. They were picking up their kids, too, and they liked that it was possible to get out early.”
When she interviewed for a superior court judgeship, she was afraid to tell an aide for Gov. Pete Wilson that she was again pregnant.
He asked why she had been less active outside of the courtroom of late. She told him she had a 2-year-old.
“He said, ‘You have a two-year-old?’ He was a father, so he completely understood why my résumé had this sort of hole in it for the past three years,” Cantil-Sakauye said.
In 2005, Schwarzenegger appointed her to the Third District Court of Appeals.
“Justices would walk into my chamber on a question and there’d be a kid lying under the table,” she said. “What can you do? That’s your life.”
Cantil-Sakauye said that she often tells female law students that they can juggle career and family, though their careers may change dramatically depending on when they can put the most effort into their work. The same goes for men.
“We will all want to go to that soccer game,” she said. “Sometimes you can go, and sometimes you’re just going to have to say ‘no.’ ”
Cantil-Sakauye said that, when she started out, Asian-American women were scarce in the legal profession. Early on, there were just two such judges in the area: Cantil-Sakauye and another King Hall graduate.
It wasn’t uncommon for people to mix them up.
“She’s a beautiful woman, very smart — I didn’t mind being confused with her,” Cantil-Sakauye said, laughing. “I don’t know how she felt.”
As she spent more time on the bench, she said, she thought less and less about what it meant to be a Filipina judge. Since being nominated to be chief justice, people have been asking about it more often.
“Diversity is tremendously useful. Absolutely invaluable,” Cantil-Sakauye said. “Because when you have different people together from different backgrounds thinking on the same problem, you have discussions you would not otherwise have had. Different cultures, different experiences, lead you to see the facts through a different lens.
“You have to learn to let the self-consciousness drop, even if you’re the only man amongst all women. You just need to let the self-consciousness drop away. Because the diversity broadens, enriches, the conversation and the analyses.”
Cantil-Sakauye said that a “new wave” of minority judges is advancing up the ranks. Older judges are stepping down and more attorneys of color have gained the necessary experience to apply for judgeships.
Cantil-Sakauye faces her share of challenges as chief justice, not least a proposed $200 million state budget cut.
Fewer lawmakers are attorneys, she said, so much of her time on the job, so far, has been spent stressing the importance of a strong, independent court system:
“Here’s the problem: The judicial branch doesn’t donate any money. We can’t help you get elected, senator. We don’t bring a constituency, because we don’t have a group of people we represent — except for the entire state of California. We can’t deliver voters.
“What we do is look at the laws that you pass, we discern what we mean, then declare what they mean, and that’s all we do — and that’s what you need us to do.”
She’s resorted to analogies. She compares the state’s courts to a house: first floor, superior court; second floor, appellate court; third floor, supreme court.
At the head of it all now: Cantil-Sakauye — 27 years after the Sacramento native peddled around the Davis campus, weighed down by her own backpack loaded with text books.
She imagined she’d be a corporate lawyer. She certainly never saw herself as the Sacramento County deputy district attorney she became after graduation. On her first day in court, she had to ask the judge where to sit.
Given time, she said, she and her classmates more than found their places (Darrell Steinberg, president pro tem of the California Senate was among them).
When the call came asking that she apply for chief justice, it wasn’t anything she’d chased after like when she was younger, Cantil-Sakauye said. This time, it came out of the blue.
This year’s first-year class at King Hall will make its mark, too, not just in courtrooms but by taking on pro bono cases, volunteering on committees, working to improve access and fairness in their communities, she said.
“I consider myself solely a place-holder — solely a place-holder. Eventually, if my graduating class is any indication, many of you will be judges and many of you will be in the legislature,” Cantil-Sakauye said.
“We all started like you. Your ability to absorb this and learn this, to move through it and conquer it, to find a subject you like and people you like to work with, will come. It will come.”
Afterward, first-year students Courtney Taylor, of San Luis Obispo, and Karen Soell, of Lacrosse, Wisc., said that what the chief justice had to say about balancing career and family resonated with them.
“She is who she is and she hasn’t compromised,” Soell said. “That was really inspiring to hear.”