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Gov. Schwarzenegger nominates first Asian American to lead California Supreme Court [Updated]

July 21, 2010 | 10:22 am

Judge Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger nominated 3rd District Court of Appeal Justice Tani Gorre Cantil-Sakauye as the next chief justice Wednesday morning, which would make her the first Asian American to lead the state's judiciary and give the California Supreme Court a female majority for the first time in its history.

Cantil-Sakauye, 50, a Sacramento native who rose through the trial courts, served as deputy legislative secretary and deputy legal affairs secretary under former Gov. George Deukmejian. He plucked her from the Sacramento district attorney's office and later appointed her to the Sacramento Municipal Court.

Former Gov. Pete Wilson named Cantil-Sakauye to the Sacramento County Superior Court, and Schwarzenegger elevated her to the Court of Appeal in Sacramento.

In a statement issued Wednesday morning, Schwarzenegger praised Cantil-Sakauye’s “distinguished history of public service.”

“She is a living example of the American dream and when she is confirmed by the voters in November, Judge Cantil-Sakauye will become California’s first Filipina chief justice, adding to our high court’s already rich diversity,” Schwarzenegger said.

A graduate of the UC Davis School of Law, Cantil-Sakauye was a surprise nominee who is relatively unknown outside judicial circles. She has served two years on the state Judicial Council, the policy-making arm of the courts, and if approved by voters in November, will be responsible for the state's entire court system.

According to several biographies, Cantil-Sakauye comes from humble roots. Her Filipina mother was a farmworker, and her Filipino-Portuguese father, born in Hawaii, worked in sugar cane and pineapple plantations before moving to Sacramento. She is a Republican, is married to a Sacramento police lieutenant and has two children.

Cantil-Sakauye said in a statement that it is a “privilege and a tremendous honor” to be asked to serve as chief justice.

“I have had the distinct pleasure of being a municipal court judge, a superior court judge and an appellate court justice,” she said. “As a jurist, woman and a Filipina, I am extremely grateful for the trust Gov. Schwarzenegger has placed in me. I hope to show young people what they can achieve if they follow their dreams and reach for their full potential.”

One California Supreme Court justice who has worked with her on the Judicial Council praised the selection.

“I am very impressed with her, the manner in which she gets to the meat of the coconut on issues” said Justice Marvin Baxter, a conservative member of the state high court. “She knows when to listen and when to talk. She has been very, very effective for a relatively new member of the council.”

He said her judicial rulings reveal her to be “a very independent thinker.”

In one case, Cantil-Sakauye dissented in a ruling that said the city of Sacramento was not liable for an alleged sexual assault by two city firefighters. The alleged assault occurred at a costume ball attended by two firefighters who drove their fire trucks to the event, where the plaintiff said they drank and flirted.

Cantil-Sakauye contended the assault may have been foreseeable.

“[T]here is at least a triable issue of fact whether the assault was fairly attributable to the work conditions under which, allegedly, firefighters were permitted to take trucks to bars, drink and pick up women,” she wrote.

Santa Clara University Law Professor Gerald Uelmen, who examined her appellate rulings, said there was "nothing of consequence that would tell us much about her orientation." He said she probably was chosen for her administrative and lobbying skills, not her judicial writings.

"I really see Ron George's hand in this ... ," Uelmen said. "I don't think it's her reputation as a legal scholar that got her the appointment, but rather her experience in dealing with court administration issues on the Judicial Council and her experience in dealing with the legislature and the governor."

[Updated at 10:50 a.m.: Court of Appeal Justice J. Anthony Kline, a Jerry Brown appointee who serves in San Francisco, praised the selection of Cantil-Sakauye. He said she is considered highly organized, congenial and a fast learner who understands the need for judicial independence.

“My guess is that her values and judicial opinions will be similar to those of Ron George,” said Kline, a liberal Democrat. “I see her as a moderate.”

UC Davis Law School Dean Kevin Johnson said she has “devoted an incredible amount of time” to a campus  program that encourages socially disadvantaged students from low income families to go to law school.

“She is very self made, a hard worker, but I never get the sense of an edge—that I did it, everybody else should be able to do it,” Johnson said. “It is more that she wants to inspire.”

Johnson called her “a careful, thoughtful, very moderate, mainstream jurist” who is “fair but perhaps somewhat conservative” on law and order issues. He predicted she would build coalitions on the seven-member court, which has three justices who are considered conservative and three who are more liberal.]

In addition to her administrative work on the Judicial Council, Cantil-Sakauye has served as president of the Anthony M. Kennedy American Inn of Court, which is dedicated to promoting civility, ethics and professionalism in the law.

Chief Justice Ronald M. George, who is retiring in January, recently appointed Cantil-Sakauye to head a Judicial Council committee charged with overseeing the operations of the Administrative Office of the Courts, which runs the court system.

Her nomination must be affirmed by a three-member panel headed by George and then by voters in November. Such nominations are usually routinely approved.

-- Maura Dolan in San Francisco

Photo: Judge Tani Gorre Cantil-Sakauye