California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye announced on Wednesday that she will be retiring from the court in January 2023 and will not be seeking a second 12-year term this November.
Chief Justice Cantil-Sakauye, in her retirement, will end a judicial career that began over 32 years ago.
Born in Sacramento in 1959 to farmworker parents of Portuguese and Filipino descent, Cantil-Sakauye graduated from the University of California, Davis in 1980, later earning a law degree from there in 1984. After a brief stint as a blackjack dealer in Reno due to being rejected by the Sacramento County Public Defender’s Office due to her young age, she was subsequently chosen to join the Sacramento County District Attorney’s Office later that year. In 1988 she moved to work in several positions in the Governor’s office, headed then by then-Governor George Deukmejian.
In 1990, at the young age of 31, Deukmejian appointed her as a Sacramento Municipal Court judge. Seven years later, in 1997, then-Governor Pete Wilson elevated her to be a judge on the Sacramento County Superior Court. There she remained for eight years until 2005 when then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger selected her as the next judge of the 3rd District for the California Court of Appeals, with Cantil-Sakauye winning election for the position herself the next year. Finally, in 2011, Schwarzenegger decided to move her up again, this time to the highest judicial position in the state, becoming the next Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court following the retirement of former Chief Justice Ronald George. At the time, she was the first person of Filipino heritage to be on the state Supreme Court, as well as the second woman overall.
During her time as Chief Justice, Cantil-Sakauye was a prominent supporter of bail reform, working to reduce bail, ending cash bail, and making most traffic infractions civil violations rather than criminal to help reduce their severity. While it has been her pet issue for years, she has spoken up about it recently during both the arguments over cash bail across the state and during the pandemic when bail was set at $0 for a few months in 2020 to help reduce prison populations and reduce virus spread. Besides bail, she also has fought for more bar and legal funding from the state and fought against ICE and immigration arrests at courthouses.
However, despite being open for another term, Cantil-Sakauye decided to move on on Wednesday, telling Governor Gavin Newsom that she will not be running this November for re-election.
“I have informed Governor Gavin Newsom that I will not seek re-election as Chief Justice of California and will conclude my judicial service when my current term of office ends,” said Chief Justice Cantil-Sakauye on Wednesday. “And of course, I will support the smooth transition of Judicial Branch leadership. For me, collegiality with my bench colleagues was also critical to my service. We discussed, debated, and sometimes disagreed, but we were always focused on the rule of law and what was right and just.”
“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 protection. 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.”
“I truly appreciate the opportunities previous governors, judicial branch leadership, and the People of California have given me to support, defend, and enhance the rule of law. 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. Newsom 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.”
While her announcement wasn’t surprising to many, it wasn’t generally expected either, with many law experts noting on Wednesday that her departure will lead to new, major changes on the California Supreme Court.
“When she leaves in January, there will only be one Republican Governor appointee left in the Court,” explained Lee Morrison, a San Diego legal assistant, to the Globe on Wednesday. “Newsom will get to not only pick his third incoming justice, but he will select the new Chief Justice. That is huge.”
“She’s noted that she came in during the Great Recession and is leaving during the COVID-19 pandemic, and in that time, saw some of the craziest things to come up in recent California history. I’ve had to bring things up to the Court before from here, and every time it surprised just what cases made it there.”
“But rolling back to Newsom’s decision, her retirement is going to likely make the court farther left and removes a moderate voice on the court. Who replaces her will be interesting, because Newsom also now has a lot riding in the next several years it seems.”
Cantil-Sakuye’s term is due to end January 1, 2023.
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