California Chief Justice Touts Court Diversity, Unity at Forum

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) – Continuing her efforts to humanize and raise public awareness of the courts, California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye said Thursday that diversity has become the dominant trait of the nation’s largest judicial system.

From left to right, California Chief Justice Cantil-Sakauye, Public Policy Institute of California president Mark Baldassare and Steven Merksamer, chief of staff to former California Gov. George Deukmejian. (CNS Photo/Nick Cahill)

Speaking at a forum largely filled with state employees in downtown Sacramento, Cantil-Sakauye said the broad range of judges that have been appointed over the last two decades has the judiciary primed to face and adapt to upcoming challenges, such as another recession and a sweeping consumer privacy law promising to spark a flood of litigation.

“It’s our diversity that makes us a little more understanding and open-minded,” Cantil-Sakauye said. “Just simply look at us.”

Of the high court’s seven justices, three are female, two are white and four are under the age of 50.

Former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger nominated Cantil-Sakauye to replace the retiring Ronald George, and the Sacramento native has led the largest judicial system in the nation since 2011. A Filipina-American, Cantil-Sakauye is California’s first minority chief justice and has said she’s open to running for another 12-year-term in 2022.

A hallmark of Cantil-Sakauye’s tenure has been her ability to produce cohesion on the bench and guide the judiciary’s recovery from major budget cuts during the Great Recession.

It’s become common for near-unanimous and unanimous decisions to come down from the high court, including recently when it cut down a contentious law that would have required presidential candidates to reveal tax returns for primary ballot access.

During the hour-long question and answer session hosted by the Public Policy Institute of California, Cantil-Sakauye praised her colleagues’ ability to prepare and brainstorm before major cases. She claimed the unanimous decisions aren’t “happenstance” and that the justices’ research results in more productive hearings.

“We’re all familiar with the facts, we’re all familiar with the law, we’re all familiar with the positions of the parties and we get into oral arguments to test different theories,” said Cantil-Sakauye.

While Cantil-Sakauye, 60, has largely been a uniting force for the high court, she has made waves politically during the Trump administration.

In 2017, she sent then-U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly a stinging letter urging the federal government to stop “stalking” undocumented immigrants and making arrests at state courthouses.

She told the crowd Thursday that she felt compelled to push back on a policy that was “terrifying people” and causing them to avoid court appearances.

“People come to court for refuge, they come for aid, they come for protection,” she said, drawing applause from the crowd.

Cantil-Sakauye, daughter of Filipino farmworkers, has since helped start a group that provides legal resources to immigrants living in California.

Another principle of Cantil-Sakauye’s tenure has been support for civics education. She’s championed an initiative known as the Power of Democracy campaign, which provides teachers with lesson plans and connects them to government officials. The chief justice says the aim of the program is to explain to students “what we do” and spark their interest in various aspects of government.

Although she was nominated by a Republican governor, the chief justice is no longer a member of the GOP. Following the confirmation hearings of U.S. Supreme Justice Brett Kavanaugh, Cantil-Sakauye announced last year that she had joined the ongoing exodus of the state Republican Party and changed her registration to “no party preference.” She said her decision was based on her daughters’ reactions to the bitter confirmation hearings and the need to show impartiality.

Though Cantil-Sakauye still considers herself a “Deukmejian Republican,” a reference to the former attorney general and governor of California, she assured the crowd she decides cases apolitically.

The chief justice and the Judicial Council of California are hoping for good news in the upcoming budget reveal, as they are hoping to finally break ground on a multitude of courthouse construction and renovation projects that have been delayed dating back to the Great Recession. At lawmakers’ request, the council recently submitted a priority list that includes over $13 billion worth of projects.

Cantil-Sakauye, who attended high school with current California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, said she’s strived over the past decade to explain to the public the inner workings of the judiciary. She also highlighted the fact that many Judicial Council hearings and all Supreme Court oral arguments are now available to watch live over the internet.

“We are a fair, just and collaborative entity,” California’s 28th chief justice said.

As for potential upcoming hurdles, the former blackjack dealer said the courts are continually bracing for economic downturn, preparing for the rush of election matters to be filed in 2020 and “holding its breath” for the implementation of the Consumer Privacy Act.

The first-of-a-kind protections will hold major retailers and marketers accountable for how they gather and use Californians’ data, and have drawn skepticism from businesses and the tech industry.

On the topic of court fees, Cantil-Sakauye lamented how the courts often get a bad rap with the public as they are required to assess and collect money that mainly goes to outside agencies and causes. She says the Legislature and the governor seem open to reforming the system, and that the Judicial Council is currently testing pilot programs to make court assessments fairer.

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