California Chief Justice Talks About Retirement, Supreme Court



A major change is coming to California’s third branch of government.

Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye announced last week that she would step down in January after 12 years at the helm of the state’s Supreme Court. Cantil-Sakauye, a moderate, guided the court through severe budget cuts following the Great Recession and is known for fostering a culture of collaboration on the bench.

The daughter of farmworkers, Cantil-Sakauye grew up in Sacramento and then attended U.C. Davis and its law school. After she spent two decades as a judge, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger appointed her to the high court, where she began serving in 2011. She became the first person of color, and the second woman, to serve as chief justice.

During her time on the court, Cantil-Sakauye championed the end of cash bail and criticized the Trump administration for allowing federal immigration authorities to make arrests in California courthouses. After the U.S. Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Justice Brett Kavanaugh in 2018, Cantil-Sakauye publicly renounced her Republican Party affiliation, saying she was concerned about increasing political polarization.

I recently spoke to Cantil-Sakauye, 62, about her career and her decision to retire. We also talked about what’s been happening at the U.S. Supreme Court, including the leak of the draft decision overturning Roe v. Wade, and what’s next for her and California’s judicial system.

Here’s our conversation, lightly edited for clarity and space:

You’ve said you’re choosing to retire now because you’re proud of what you’ve accomplished on the court. What are you most proud of? Is it a certain case?

I look back with warmth and pride that the Supreme Court in the last 12 years has brought on five new justices — five people who were basically strangers to each other. And we’ve come together. We have trust and collegiality and we try out ideas on each other. And we evolve together, we learn — I learn from my colleagues.

So I’m proud that we have been able to maintain that civility and trust over the decades. It’s not any particular case. It’s our way we approach all cases, which has made working with them such a joy, and very hard to leave.

That spirit of compromise on the bench feels particularly impressive in light of the divisiveness on the U.S. Supreme Court. How have you been able to maintain that collegiality?

Five members currently on our seven-member court were appointed by Democrats, either Gov. Jerry Brown or Gov. Gavin Newsom. And two of us were appointed by Governor Schwarzenegger. And we’re pretty diverse —ethnically, gender, age-wise and experience.

But we have a vetting process that really picks up the entirety of the person, in terms of their ability to be on a court of review and working collaboratively with others.

You identify as a centrist. Do you think having a moderate chief justice has helped with achieving consensus?

I think it doesn’t hurt. My colleagues will say too, I think, that we understand our role as guiding the law, clarifying it for the lower courts, the practitioners and the public. So we may start off, for example, with a broad opinion, but as we each weigh in we start to narrow it because we realize we don’t need to speak so broadly. We are more geared toward providing guidance and clarification on California law that I think makes the difference for why we are able to agree.

What was your reaction to the leak of the draft decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which revealed that Roe v. Wade could be overturned? Did you feel the need to better secure drafts in your court?

It was startling. It took us all aback. But we have not changed anything about our practice or procedure at all. We didn’t think that could happen in our court. We just more remarked on the fact that, oh my goodness. This is not good for trust of the court and the development of robust ideas.

Do you have a short list for whom you want to replace you, or a preference for what their political ideology might be? Would you prefer another centrist?

I have, of course, people in mind if I were asked, and it’s not based on their centrism but more that they have skills — people skills and legal skills and administrative skills and management skills — and as a result, I think they’ll be open to this collaborative effort that was created in California to govern our judiciary.

Has Newsom asked you for any help picking your replacement?

No, he has not.

Do you know what you’re going to do come January?

I do not know. I think that’s probably a part of my anxiety — I’ve always known what I was going to be doing in the next January.

You recently said in an interview that you were done with politics. Is that still true?

That’s still true, if not stronger than ever.

And finally, what would you say are the biggest challenges facing the state courts are right now?

The threat of sustainable funding. We are a third branch of government, but we lobby for our budget in the same way as any other entity that’s state-funded. We don’t have a say in the budget process except to make the ask.

When I first started this work as chief justice, our budget was slashed by billions. We were closing courthouses. We were closing services. We were on furlough. When I was an appellate justice, I worked without pay, like so many of my colleagues, to keep our doors open. We rely on the civic understanding of the executive branch and the legislative branch for our existence. And I think that’s always a threat.

For $2.7 million: An English country-style home in Carmel Valley, a 1923 farmhouse in Laurel Canyon and a three-bedroom retreat a few blocks from the beach in Oceanside.

Today’s tip comes from Susan Weikel Morrison, who recommends a trip in Mendocino County:

“Noyo Harbor, just south of Fort Bragg, is so utterly lovely and sublime. It’s at the mouth of the Noyo River — with all the North Coast beauty and character but without the crowds of the more popular places.

The main hustle and bustle is on the water, with a near constant passing of small fishing boats and pleasure yachts, plus occasional canoes and Coast Guard cutters. You can rent the canoes and paddle yourself, or you can see harbor and sea on a small tour boat.

The land area features several picturesque restaurants with great food and harbor views, mostly serving locals, along with a number of marine service shops that make it clear that this is principally a working harbor rather than a tourist venue.

If you follow the street past the businesses, you’ll come to the harbor entrance, where you can enjoy walking the beach, fishing from the pier, and the luscious sunsets over the ocean.”

Tell us about your favorite places to visit in California. Email your suggestions to [email protected]. We’ll be sharing more in upcoming editions of the newsletter.

Trevor Rainbolt, a 23-year-old online video producer in Los Angeles, is one of the world’s greatest GeoGuessr players.

If you’re unfamiliar with the game, the premise is simple: As you stare at a computer or phone, you’re plopped down somewhere in the world in Google Street View and must guess, as quickly as you can, exactly where you are. You can click to travel down roads and through cities, scanning for distinguishable landmarks or language. The closer you guess, the more points you score.

Rainbolt is among an elite group who can identify within seconds whether an ordinary-looking street is in Lake Tahoe or Siberia or Japan. “It’s like a magician,” he said. “To the magician, the trick is easy, but to everyone else, it’s a lot harder.”

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