In early April, the new Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court, Tani Gorre Cantil-Sakauye marked her first 100 days in office. After her historic nomination by former governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, Cantil-Sakauye was voted in by an overwhelming majority of Californians — making headlines as the first Asian, the first Filipino, only the second woman, and one of the youngest to hold this position.
In her first in-depth televised interview since she took office, Cantil-Sakauye discusses with New America Media anchor Odette Keeley the critical role of diversity in the bench and the next big case to go before the court this September: Prop 8, the voter-approved ban on same-sex marriage.
Here are highlights from this two-part interview recorded at the COMCAST Studios in San Francisco.
Chief, as the daughter of a Filipina farm worker and a Filipino-Portuguese plantation worker, how do you see your family’s immigrant and multi-cultural background expanding the lens by which you are now making decisions as Chief Justice?
Cantil-Sakauye: I consider my family history one of my greatest personal strengths, in part because I grew up with family members who worked so hard to land here, and who believe in the American dream, the value of education and hard work. And so the work ethic and dreams were instilled in me at an early age. And I also was aware of the treatment that they had received at the hands of government — in their eyes where they felt they weren’t being treated fairly, and I grew up with that background as well. So, given the strong work ethic, the possibility of dreams and the belief that the law would be better served with more attention to diversity and to understanding of people’s needs, I grew up having that strong sense of justice, of what’s right in the world.
Another milestone you have set as Chief Justice is giving the California Supreme Court its first-ever female majority since it was established in 1850—why is it important to have female justices like yourself, to have more persons of color in the bench?
Cantil-Sakauye: I think the broader question is; why is diversity important in the rule of law in the justice system? I think it’s imperative. For me and my belief of how the judicial system works, we work because people trust and have confidence in our objectivity and in our earnestness in the application of our work. In order to have trust you have to look like the people who have the problems. The bench needs to reflect the population of California so that Californians can continue to trust and understand that people in the position of power in the terms of the law, are just like them. We understand the issues because we have similar experiences, backgrounds, cultures and heritage.
Does the state high court have any pending immigration / minority rights cases before it now?
Cantil-Sakauye: Well, immigration in particular is typically a federal issue, so as a state court, we are not privy to those kinds of issues and they are not subject to our jurisdiction. I can’t think off the top of my head regarding certain cases having to do with minority rights, except of course the case that has been referred to us by the Ninth Circuit, regarding the certification of the legal question of standing in the Prop 8 case. It’s pending in the court and recently came to our court on January 4, I think the second day of my new administration.
What are your views on comprehensive immigration reform?
Cantil-Sakauye: In truth I’m sort of unable to answer personal feelings or opinions about matters that might come before the court. Now it’s true as I said earlier that immigration isn’t something that generally comes before the state court but certain aspects of it may. So I am precluded from prejudging or stating an opinion because really, I follow the rule of law in my professional judgment on cases.
What are the issues that the California Supreme Court will need to rule on Prop 8, the voter-approved ban on same-sex marriage, when it is reported to come back there by September?
Cantil-Sakauye: In Prop 8, currently there’s no date set but we anticipate based on an expedited briefing schedule set by the Supreme Court, that it’s possible that we could hear the matter as early as September. The question is whether or not the proponents of Prop 8 have legal standing to defend the proposition in federal court, when state public officials have declined to do so. In fact it is a procedural question, one of tremendous import, but it is still a procedural question. Once we answer the standing question, of course that’s not the end of the matter, the matter would then go back to the federal court.
You’ve described yourself as a moderate Republican. Describe your politics, and does it affect your judicial philosophy?
Cantil-Sakauye: Well, you have to understand that the law and politics in a judge’s world do not mix. I decide cases based on the rule of law, on the Constitution, and on statute and case law. So when you ask me my current state of politics, my answer would have to be quite stunted because in fact, I don’t really have a political side. I have a legal side. I look at pros and cons, both sides of the case and determine what law controls. But politics doesn’t enter into the equation of what law applies and how to apply it.
One of the many challenges you immediately faced when you took office is the Governor’s [Jerry Brown] proposed $200 million cut for the judiciary. How are you and your colleagues seeking to resolve this problem?
Cantil-Sakauye: Well, the cut is alarming and serious. On the other hand, the governor proposed cuts across the board and the judicial branch understands the dire situation in California. We are doing our best to meet that cut. I met with the governor regarding the cut and explained to him that even though this $ 200 million cut may not, in the grand scheme of budgets seem like a big cut to the executive branch, but I wanted him to remember, and take into account that in the current fiscal year the judicial budget was cut by $30 million.
Furthermore, the cut doesn’t reflect on the fact that the case load growth has grown. We lack the judicial resources because we need more judgeships to take on more cases. And also our budget hasn’t been funded for growth period. So this is a cut on top of failure to fund growth. But what I did was get together a group of ad hoc judicial leaders and we talked about the best way the judicial branch could absorb this cut in the least harmful way without closing courts and laying people off. So this was a collaborative collective decision by the judicial branch leaders about where we could take this cut. Once we had a plan we took it to the legislature and indicated to them that this is where we think we can sustain this alarming cut in the least harmful way to the public so that the pubic can still have access, so we do not lay off court employees.
You have been fiercely critical of the cost-saving measure back in September 2009 until July last year, when courts closed one day a month — you in fact call it a civil rights issue.
Cantil-Sakauye: I’ve explained to the governor and I have said publicly that continuing to under-fund the courts and continuing to cut our base budget means that eventually you close services. If you eliminate services, eventually what you do is you tread on civil rights. People can’t get into courts to have their issues litigated. On top of that, there’s an enormous fiscal crisis going on and people are losing homes, people are losing services, and jobs. Where do you turn when you lose something like that? You turn to the courts and if the courts are under funded and unable to be there to resolve those incredible socio- economic conflicts then really it’s a civil rights issue.
Odette Keeley is host and executive producer of “New America Now”, NAM’s TV show, as well as anchor for NAM segments on “Upside” – both airing on COMCAST Hometown Network – CHN 104 & COMCAST ON DEMAND. This two-part interview will air on both shows, as well as on the channel’s “Newsmakers” program.