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California chief justice speaks to local teens

Fields questions from panel of Granite Bay High School students
By: Sena Christian, Staff Reporter
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As a student at McClatchy High School in Sacramento in the late 1970s, Tani Cantil-Sakauye never imagined she’d become the chief justice of the California Supreme Court, let alone the first Filipina-American in the court’s history and only its second female chief justice.

During high school, she was in student government and on the cheerleading team, where she developed the ability to speak loudly without a microphone, a skill that would come in handy years later in the courtroom. But Cantil-Sakauye, whose family members were mainly farmworkers, didn’t know any lawyers or judges.

“You can never dream big enough about what can happen to you,” she told a group of 300 students at Granite Bay High School on April 8.

The presentation, in which she fielded questions from a panel of four students, was part of her ongoing outreach and civic learning initiative, “Your Constitution: The Power of Democracy.”

She encouraged the students to get involved with political campaigns, and to read a lot and learn to write well, because people are judged by these traits in the professional world. She urged the teens to keep informed of the news.

Cantil-Sakauye told the audience the next Margaret Thatcher — who died earlier that morning — and the first female president of the United States were among them.

“She is in high school now,” the chief justice said. “I am telling you, the times are changing.”

Cantil-Sakauye rose through the judicial ranks during a time when females weren’t often visible in the courtroom, especially women of color.

After high school, she attended Sacramento City College and joined the speech and debate team. As waitress, she picked up on the body language and signs of disgruntled customers, which turned out to be useful for choosing a jury. She attended the University of California at Davis for undergrad and law school, from which she graduated in 1984.

“You can imagine back in the ‘80s there weren’t a lot of lawyers that looked like me,” she said.

Women had to fight harder, she said, and learn to speaker louder. She found support in other women and in “forward-thinking, visionary men.”

In 1988, she joined Gov. George Deukmejian’s senior staff and did constitutional analysis. In 1990, she was appointed as a judge of the Sacramento Municipal Court. She served seven years as a trial judge and six years as an appellate judge. She said the hardest cases involved juveniles.

Student panelists Devon Patel asked: “How has your cultural heritage and being a woman influenced your career?”

She said coming from a large, Filipino family, she learned how to work with others, organize social events and took cues from her mother, who was very tough, although she appeared small and docile.

When asked about the most interesting case she’s heard on the Supreme Court, Cantil-Sakauye said all the cases they hear are interesting. No one has a right for their case to be heard before the Supreme Court, except death penalty defendants. Otherwise, the case must be so novel, unique, important, conflicting and with no clear answer to reach the state’s highest court.

While there are about 10,000 filings a year in this court, the justices write only about 100 opinions annually and each one involves a painstaking process to consider the case in multiple ways, Cantil-Sakauye said.

“To work to make justice accessible to all … that is the greatest part of this job,” she said.