From diapers to gavels: Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye tells her story

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California Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye spoke Thursday morning at the 29th Annual Yolo County Women’s History Month Luncheon to around 300 County leaders and residents.

The theme of this year’s celebration was “Working to Form a More Perfect Union: Honoring Women in Public Service and Government,” and was held to recognize the women who have shaped America’s history and its future through their leadership.

Cantil-Sakauye is the 28th Chief Justice of the state’s Supreme Court, sworn into office on Jan. 3, 2011.

She is the first Asian-Filipina American and the second woman to serve in this position.

Cantil-Sakauye is local to the Sacramento area and graduated from UC Davis with honors before going on to receive her Juris Doctor degree from the UC Davis School of Law.

She is a former deputy district attorney in Sacramento County and served on the senior staff of Governor George Deukmejian, first as deputy legal affairs secretary, and later as a deputy legislative secretary.

The Chief Justice is also a former board member of several nonprofit organizations and has been active in the state Judges’ Association, the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association, and the Sacramento Asian Bar Association.

She is married to retired police lieutenant Mark Sakauye and they have two daughters.

At this year’s luncheon, Cantil-Sakauye candidly told the story of how she rose to her current position — from a young girl to the woman she is today.

“I spent many years in Davis — not only going to school, but also working — so I also feel like a part of this community. Also, because I live in Sacramento and I’m regularly in San Francisco. I know I’m home as soon as I see Dixon,” the Chief Justice began.

“In honor of Women’s History Month,” she continued, “I thought I might share with you some of my upbringing and how women played such a prominent role in who I am today and how I never thought that I was making history or doing anything unusual.”

“Little did I know, I grew up in a filipina, matriarchal family. So, I had a lot of aunts — a lot of non-blood aunties,” said Cantil-Sakauye, “who were very, very bossy and who looked very small and were quiet in a crowd. But, if you got two or three or four aunties together they would lead. They would organize events to bring the children together.”

“But I did not know at the time when I was growing up in the filipino community,” she continued, “and being ordered to do things and being pinched and having my ear pulled and being told to do things that it was really part of collaboration. It was part of organizing something for the greater good, so that by 5 o’clock or 6 o’clock at night we could all enjoy… but I took away from that things that helped me throughout the years.”


The chief justice explained that no one would have guessed back then that she would have gone to college let alone become a lawyer, judge, or Chief Justice.

“It’s because of the events and the things I learned from the women, early on as a girl child, that I modeled, that I just thought was part and natural of my upbringing and my femininity, and everyone I knew, was to be bossy underneath… that serves us well honestly,” Cantil-Sakauye went on.

She further commented that her family was not particularly aware of four-year universities and it was never put into her head that she could go to college directly from high school which led her to work in various, unglamourous jobs that gave her tools to move forward in her life.

When the Chief Justice graduated from law school, she assumed that she would be working behind the scenes due to the types of courses she had been taking, but ended up becoming a prosecutor at the Sacramento District Attorney’s Office because it was the first job that had an opening in a tough job market.

“I came from a family where males dominated, I came from a very catholic, ethnic family. I was the youngest, I was the girl, and so I hardly ever had the opportunity to argue with people. I never had the opportunity to question people,” she explained.

The DA’s Office forced her to adapt and then she went on to work at an all-male Governor’s Office where she was a “fly on the wall.”

She was one of two attorneys there who would be sent out to handle the disgruntled people or legislators that would come to speak to the Governor and would return to him with information.

These experiences caused the Chief Justice to become somewhat fearless in the face of yelling people, accidentally providing her another valuable tool.

When Arnold Schwarzenegger became governor in 2005, Cantil-Sakauye decided that she wanted her name to be on his desk when he realized that he could appoint judges.

She had no political connections, but managed to be appointed to the 3rd appellate court of appeals which she saw as another great opportunity to learn and grow.

She eventually would go on to become a nominee for the state Supreme Court.

Throughout the years, she watched and learned from her fellow female attorneys and judges and eventually helped create a female majority in the state Supreme Court.

“It has truly been an amazing journey and I can tell you that never had I thought that it would involve anything like history or anything new or different,” Cantil-Sakauye finished.

The sold-out event raised more than $2,000 which will benefit the public libraries in Yolo County for the purchase of women’s history materials.

Contact Lauren King at 530-406-6232.

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