California's Chief Justice, Tani Cantil-Sakauye '84, visits Judicial Process class
By Carla Meyer
The Chief Justice of California, Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye ’84, spoke on Oct. 23 to the Judicial Process class taught by her fellow alum, Sacramento Superior Court Judge Lawrence G. Brown ’89. Cantil-Sakauye offered practical advice about how to further one’s early legal career.
When she graduated, she entered a depressed legal job market, Cantil-Sakauye told the students. She took the first job offered, in the Sacramento District Attorney’s office. Hired on a probationary basis, she believed the job temporary, and hustled to enhance her skills while there.
“I knocked on doors when I wasn’t busy. I would say, ‘Do you have a motion? Do you need someone to appear in court?’ I wasn’t doing it to win points. I was doing it to build my portfolio.”
She was in court more often than any other new recruit, she said. “When I asked my supervisor, ‘Why am I going to trial every day?’ he said, ‘Because you look beatable.’”
In 1984, “there were hardly any women prosecutors, there were few women judges and almost no minorities,” said Cantil-Sakauye, who is Filipina American. “I am sure I was an anomaly” to the criminal defense attorneys she faced in court.
Cantil-Sakauye said she used “the qualities that people thought made me less of a prosecutor” to her advantage.
“Bad guys would think, ‘Oh, she’s harmless,’ and open up. Defense attorneys would share things, and then find out they should not have shared.”
Cantil-Sakauye urged students to “try to grow some part of you that is not natural to you, every day” when starting their careers. “It will help you roll with the punches in a profession that deals every day in conflict.”
Born and raised in Sacramento, Cantil-Sakauye told the students she wanted to move to San Francisco after law school. But there were no jobs. Staying in Sacramento proved advantageous, however, in keeping her close to the seat of power. Her first job after the D.A.’s office was as Deputy Legal Affairs Secretary to Gov. George Deukmejian, who later appointed her to her first judgeship, on the Sacramento Municipal Court.
“What do they say a judge is? A judge is a lawyer who knows the governor,” Cantil-Sakauye joked.
Appointed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger as Chief Justice in 2010, Cantil-Sakauye now splits her time among San Francisco, where the Supreme Court is headquartered, and Sacramento and Los Angeles, where it holds sessions.