“Judge Tani,” Pride of Filipinos, Is Confirmed to Head CA Supreme Court

“Judge Tani,” Pride of Filipinos, Is Confirmed to Head CA Supreme Court

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“You are my village… I’ve learned from all of you,” an emotional Justice Tani Gorre Cantil-Sakauye told a packed hearing room in San Francisco this week, as a three-member panel unanimously confirmed her to be the new chief justice of the California Supreme Court.

The vote, by the Commission on Judicial Appointments, followed a two-hour hearing presided over by the man “Judge Tani,” she is respectfully known to many in the Filipino-American community, is replacing: incumbent Chief Justice Ronald George.

The hearing room erupted in a standing ovation for Cantil-Sakauye, who will become the first Asian-American to head the state Supreme Court, which oversees one of the largest court systems in the world. At age 50, she will also be one of the court’s youngest members and will give the seven-member court a female majority for the first time in history.

Also voting to confirm Cantil-Sakauye were attorney general (and gubernatorial candidate) Jerry Brown and Joan Dempsey Klein, presiding justice of the state Courts of Appeal. Cantil-Sakauye has served on the appeals court in Sacramento since 2005.

She faces one more hurdle before joining the high court: her appointment must be confirmed by voters in November. Assuming that happens, she will assume her new role in January, when George's retirement takes effect.

The hearing room was filled with Cantil-Sakauye’s judicial, legal and professional colleagues, Filipino leaders, and her family, including her husband, Sacramento Police Lt. Mark Sakauye.

Justice Arthur Scotland, Administrative Presiding Justice of the Court of Appeal in Sacramento, called Cantil-Sakauye the “perfect candidate” to lead the state’s highest court, citing her “brilliant mind, leadership, objectivity, integrity, decisiveness and fairness, as well as a thorough and thoughtful approach to the law.”

Alice Salvo, chair of the independent State Bar Commission on Judicial Nominees Evaluation, testified that her group had rated Cantil-Sakauye as “exceptionally qualified” to lead the court, its highest ranking. Among the qualities Salvo praised were Cantil-Sakauye’s “intelligence, diligence, outstanding legal research skills, model judicial temperament, and impartiality.”

Emotions were especially high among the Filipino members of the audience, for whom Cantil-Sakauye has become a hero and role model since her nomination in July by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The Wednesday hearing was the first time that Regina Reyes, North America news bureau chief of the Filipino Channel-ABS-CBN International, had covered the confirmation of any public official. “You could feel their joy, their happiness,” she said, describing the audience’s reaction to each speech in support of the nomination. “When her confirmation was made official, they were ecstatic.”

“We are here, we’re making history!” cheered Lorna Dietz, a member of the Filipina Women’s Network and a leading blogger for the Filipino community.

Several prominent Filipino Americans also testified in support of Cantil-Sakauye.

Former Acting Lieutenant Governor Mona Pasquil noted that Cantil-Sakauye’s grandparents, like her own, had been farm workers in California’s Central Valley. Pasquil said their elders had taught them both to “work hard and take care of community.”

“She is the daughter of two outstanding Californians who instilled in her the importance of excellence and fairness,” Pasquil enthused.

Eduardo Angeles, of the City Attorney’s office in Los Angeles, testified on behalf of the Filipino American Service Group Inc. “As a Filipino-American lawyer in California… as a Filipino immigrant… it holds such significance in the legal community, to see someone at that caliber rise to the highest position in the judicial branch of state government,” he told New America Media.

Marily Mondejar, president of the Filipina Women’s Network, told the commission that Cantil-Sakauye had established and presided over the first anti-domestic violence court in Sacramento in 1997, working on an issue that touches 1 in 4 families nationwide. She said that Cantil-Sakauye remained “fair and objective in these cases, not necessarily being pro-victim but she will be respectful of all women’s rights.”

Mondejar’s organization had urged Filipinos to bring their daughters and young children to the hearing, inspired by an anecdote Cantil-Sakauye has often shared. When the future judge was in high school, her mother took her to an event where Gloria Megino-Ochoa, the first Filipino American to graduate from UC Davis law school, was speaking. Megino-Ochoa eventually became the first Filipino American in California to be elected as a county supervisor, winning a seat on the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors in 1988. Cantil-Sakauye, meanwhile, went on  to be mentored by Megino-Ochoa, graduating from her alma mater in 1984.

Mondejar said it was important to make sure that young Filipinos see women from their community in positions of power and influence. “We hope young people can tell themselves, “I can be like her.’”

Cantil-Sakauye showed herself to be highly resourceful from an early age. She helped pay for law school by dealing blackjack in Reno and Tahoe. She then worked for the Sacramento District Attorney's Office prosecuting traffic, juvenile and felony cases, before going to work for Republican Gov. George Deukmejian as his deputy legal affairs secretary and later as his deputy legislative secretary.

Deukmejian soon appointed Cantil-Sakauye to be a Sacramento Municipal Court judge in 1990, when she had just turned 31. Gov. Pete Wilson promoted her to the Sacramento Superior Court in 1997, and Schwarzenegger appointed her to the Court of Appeal in 2005 before nominating her to the state’s highest court this summer.

In her remarks to the commission, Cantil-Sakauye thanked Schwarzenegger for giving her the “opportunity and adventure of a lifetime.”

She stressed that of the many lessons she has learned in her 25-year career, the most important one would be “that in this steep learning curve, which I hope will be my role as Chief Justice… I will bring the promise to listen closely, to analyze carefully and identify the critical components to arrive at a collaborative resolution and to always understand that the rule of law prevails.”

At a press conference after the briefing, Cantil-Sakauye was asked by by Regina Reyes of the Filipino Channel how her heritage would provide a different perspective as the state’s chief justice. “As a woman, or as a Filipino, or as a mother, or as a 50-yea-old woman in this society—that always influences the facts and how I understand the facts,” Cantil-Sakauye said. “But in terms of the rule of law, I apply the rule of law based on precedence."