LONG BEACH (CN) In the face of severe budget cuts to California’s courts, Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye told a convocation of judges on Sunday that she is an eternal optimist. She joked that she is reminded of a scene in the movie “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,” where the protagonist is chased by a giant boulder, every time she faces the Legislature. Nonetheless, she said, “Every morning I wake up with a sense of optimism.”
Addressing judges gathered at the annual conference of the California Judges Association, Cantil-Sakauye said the state’s judges and justices should put aside disagreement over how the courts are run, and focus instead on dealing with the Legislature.
“If we look at how we work together to achieve what’s good for the branch as a whole we really are a force to be reckoned with. We can be a real force in the legislature if we realize our strength,” said the chief justice.
She acknowledged the dissatisfaction many judges have expressed with the Judicial Council, the top policy-making body for California’s courts, and with the Administrative Office of the Courts. When a judge asked what she would say to young judges who are surprised to find the judiciary divided, Cantil-Sakauye responded, “I too am concerned about the divisiveness and discord,” and said conflict should be handled “in a civil and graceful manner.”
“We are the best trained group of professionals in the state,” she said. “We solve conflict for others. If we can bring the best of these things for ourselves we can solve our differences. There will always be discord because we’re critical thinkers, but the ability to repair ourselves comes from within.”
When asked what surprised her most about her job as chief, Cantil-Sakauye said what shocked her most was the lack of knowledge among state legislators about the branch.
“I was surprised by how little the legislature was educated about the role of the judicial branch.” She went on to say the mercurial nature of the Legislative branch makes it difficult for legislators to learn about how the judiciary works, including the “crushing caseloads” endured by judges. Legislators also often see the council and the AOC as synonymous.
Cantil-Sakauye also briefly discussed some of the changes she is implementing within the branch, including a top to bottom review of the judiciary’s bureaucracy.
Though judges have dismissed her efforts to review the AOC through internal committees as “window dressing,” as one judge pointed out during the discussion, Cantil-Sakauye said it is the only way to legitimately handle what some see as an out-of-control bureaucracy.
“I am a bit dismayed by a judgment call without facts,” she said. “I have only ever found the right decision is made with the right process. I am able to hear those who want to speak to me. I’ve tried to put judges in charge of big initiatives that are important to the branch. It’s not window dressing; it’s the only way we can give credibility to the process. I would be aghast if someone said ‘I have all the answers and this is way we’re doing it. It’s my way or the highway.'”
When the subject of a costly and controversial IT project called the Court Case Management System was brought up, Cantil-Sakauye said, “We have to do it cautiously and find a different funding mechanism,” but mentioned that private attorneys want the IT system and perhaps would be willing to contribute a portion of their filing fees toward CCMS.
The conversation also shifted periodically to lighter matters, where Cantil-Sakauye divulged little-known facts about her life, including that she had served on juries three times, once as an attorney, once as a trial judge and most surprisingly, as an appellate justice. Cantil-Sakauye said she would go into the voir dire expecting to be asked to leave, but ended up deliberating in all three cases.
While many are familiar with the chief’s stint as a blackjack dealer in Lake Tahoe during her first year of law school at UC Davis, Cantil-Sakauye said she took a year off before pursuing her law degree to explore her roots in the Philippines.
“It was pretty earth-moving for me,” she said. “There’s no middle class there. So I had a family that lived in huts on the beach and a family that lived in a mansion with maids that would change the TV channel for you.”
When asked what her most embarrassing moment has been in her nine months as chief justice, Cantil-Sakauye replied, “Unfortunately most of my embarrassing facts have already come out. I don’t embarrass easily because it happens so frequently you have to get over it. But I do wear a lot of black, and one day I thought I put my robe on and I came out wearing my black coat. No one noticed. Embarrassment is overrated.”