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May 05, 2023 Waymaker

The Honorable Tani Gorre Cantil-Sakauye: Chief Justice, California Supreme Court (Ret.)

By Judge Margaret Kuroda Masunaga (Ret.)

Facts About Chief Justice Tani Gorre Cantil-Sakauye

Born: October 19, 1959, in Sacramento, CA

Parents: Clarence Freitas Cantil, Hawaii-born father of Filipino and Portuguese ancestry, and mother, Mary Edellion Gorre, Filipina (both deceased)

Sister: Kim Cantil

Brothers: Clem Cantil and Marc Cantil (deceased)

Spouse: Mark Sakauye, Japanese American, married in 1994, who is a retired lieutenant of the Sacramento Police Department

Children: Two daughters, Hana and Clare Sakauye, graduates of the University of California, Davis, and the University of the Pacific, Stockton

High school: Graduated in 1977 from C. K. McClatchy High School, located in the Land Park area and established in 1937, currently the oldest operating high school in the Sacramento Unified School District

College: Earned associate’s degree from Sacramento City College, bachelor’s degree and juris doctor degree from the University of California, Davis

Judicial career:

  • Confirmed in 2010 as the 28th Chief Justice of California (sworn in January 2011)
  • Nominated by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger on July 22, 2010, to be the chief justice
  • In 2005, Governor Schwarzenegger nominated her to the Court of Appeal, Third Appellate District
  • In 1997, Governor Pete Wilson nominated her to the Superior Court of Sacramento County
  • In 1990, Governor George Deukmejian appointed her to the Sacramento Municipal Court
  • From 1988 to 1990, she was the deputy legal affairs secretary and later deputy legislative secretary under Governor Deukmejian


  • First Asian American (and also the first person of color) to lead the California Supreme Court from 2011 to 2023, when she retired
  • First Filipina American and the second woman to serve as the state’s chief justice

Hobbies: Golf, tennis, pickleball


  • 2019 Sandra Day O’Connor Award by the National Center for State Courts for her work inspiring, promoting, and improving civics education
  • 2013 ABA Margaret Brent Women Lawyers of Achievement Award
  • 2003 National Asian Pacific American Bar Association Trailblazer’s Award
  • She has also been recognized for her early work on domestic violence issues, for her support for minority bar associations, and for advancing the role of women and minorities in the legal profession

Current position: President and CEO of the Public Policy Institute of California

Favorite song: “Fantasy” by Earth, Wind & Fire

Bucket list: Go to Italy with her husband and daughters

Most interesting job: Blackjack dealer at Harrah’s

On September 13, 2022, at the historic Stanley Mosk Library and Court of Appeal Building in Sacramento, adjacent to the State of California Capitol building, I sat down with Chief Justice Tani Gorre Cantil-Sakauye (CJ Cantil-Sakauye) of the California Supreme Court.

Most interviewers would focus on cases and her tenure as the chief justice, but, to be honest, I just wanted to catch up on our lives since our McClatchy High School days when we met over 48 years ago. Back in 1995, CJ Cantil-Sakauye and her husband Mark chaperoned her nephew Matt Nakao’s first date in sixth grade with Nikki Muranaka, my niece.

Ruthe Ashley, CJ Cantil-Sakauye, and I went to lunch after our interview. These two humble, intelligent, trailblazing, beautiful Filipina American attorneys are featured at the California Museum in Sacramento in the “California is in the Heart” exhibit under Law & Politics that runs through April 30, 2023. CJ Cantil-Sakauye is also part of the exhibit “California Women Changing Our World” as one of the Inspiring Women. At the museum, below her photo, states, “Tani Cantil-Sakauye is the first Filipina American to serve as California’s chief justice. She worked as a prosecutor and a judge before being appointed to lead the state’s Supreme Court in 2010. She has worked to reform the bail system, decriminalize minor offenses, and improve civic education.”

Ruthe Ashley, a former member of the ABA Board of Governors, says this about CJ Cantil-Sakauye: “The chief justice has been a gift to the people of California. When she was appointed 11 years ago, she took over a judiciary that was struggling with finances, conflict with a group of judges, vacancies, and more. In her 11 years at the helm, she changed all that with her leadership and ability to work with all. Her historical appointment as the first woman of color chief justice and Filipina American opens doors for so many after her. She is an inspiration and role model. We will miss her.”

Hawaii Chief Justice Mark Recktenwald has gotten to know CJ Cantil-Sakauye at the Conference of Chief Justices (CCJ) meetings. He commented that “she is a wonderful leader, and her retirement is a big loss to the chief justices conference. I hope she is able to relax a bit and have more time with her family.” CJ Cantil-Sakauye’s advocacy behind the scenes made the creation of the CCJ/Conference of State Court Administrators environment and natural resources committee possible.

CJ Cantil-Sakauye’s former colleague on the California Supreme Court, Tino Cuellar, who is now President of Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says, “California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye was a transformative leader for the state’s judiciary because she has the unusual combination of a spine of steel and a capacity for generous engagement with colleagues. She could listen patiently but was also decisive when needed and could communicate with clarity and eloquence. Within the California Supreme Court, she led in a way that kept the court together even as justices sometimes held onto differing views. She worked to make the courts responsive to the needs of all Californians while also protecting judicial independence. In this fragile moment for democracy in the U.S. and abroad, I have found an even deeper appreciation for the norms and values that the chief justice embodied during her long tenure of public service.”

What is your fondest McClatchy High School memory?

I have so many great memories of McClatchy. I loved McClatchy and everything about it. We had Unity Day. All the organizations would bring food and play music or perform a dance. I just remember it being really homogeneous, lots of groups of people, diverse, and we all got along. I was just telling my husband this the other day; I tend to think it was about the music. There was Lynyrd Skynyrd, Van Morrison, Pablo Cruise, but all of us, everybody, came together for Earth, Wind & Fire. That was a unifying factor. We were all mellow from it.

Did you go to the Tower of Power concert in the gym at McClatchy?

I don’t remember that, but my husband is a trumpet player. He is all and only about Tower of Power. We have all the recordings.

Do you remember the East Wind Band? They still play in Sacramento. Dale Chinn plays the trumpet.

Everybody loved East Wind. We danced. It united us. The music united us.

Who was your favorite teacher at McClatchy?

Mr. Nicolai Laquaglia. Always in a hurry, always frustrated and exasperated with us. Kind and full of wisdom. Because of student government, and all of us were in there. He managed to speak everybody’s language.

Were you a songleader or cheerleader?

Songleader. It wasn’t like cheerleaders today. We were not cliquey or part of a cool crowd. We were everybody’s crowd. We had the parade. The Turkey Trot. That turkey was in my backyard! Scary, vicious.

Were you on any court?

I was homecoming queen in 1976 with Jerry Chappell, the homecoming king, and football star.

What was your most interesting job?

I was a blackjack dealer at Harrah’s, Lake Tahoe. Back in the day. They came to UC Davis to interview on campus. I was in law school. It was a two-minute interview. We walked up to this room, my roommate and I. They asked us a few questions and hired us both on the spot. We worked during the summer and holidays.

What is on your bucket list?

I don’t really have one. There are things I want to do. Go to Italy with my girls and my husband. I would like to spend some time in the mountains and in nature with my husband. I like to snowshoe in a quiet place. I’d like to visit more national parks out of state.

Do you have a favorite vacation spot?

Not really. I’m kind of a homebody with my husband. We have two dogs like the sons we never had—a standard poodle and a rescue dog. The rescue dog is insecure. I can’t imagine my house without the noise and dogs.

Do you have any hobbies?

I started playing golf again with my old law school roommate and a group of 10 other women once or twice a month. I’m going to the range and bringing my younger daughter along. I picked up tennis again. I used to play. I was #12 on a team of 12 in junior college. I recently picked up pickleball with two McClatchy friends. We talk and tease each other.

Have you ever thought about writing a book?

I have. I’ve been encouraged. I haven’t had the focus.

You could write a children’s book—like Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

I would like to do a children’s book. I’ve thought about that. I’ve also thought about a small book, 15 Lessons in the Law or Female Perspective Practicing Law.

The ABA would be interested.

I would love to do something like that. They [the ABA] are a tremendous force. They do so much.

You should join the ABA Judicial Division. You get The Judges’ Journal publication as a benefit of membership.

I like being informed about what everyone is doing. That’s a good national organization. California has always been the bigger state bar. When we were all in one. We now have this division. Now, the ABA is even stronger in California.

Switching gears, do you have any ideas on how to improve judicial security?

Judicial safety, now more than ever, is in the spotlight. As judges, we are used to toiling in anonymity. We all know the stories. We’ve witnessed it. We’ve been the victim of threats. I’ve had my share of threats. As a trial court judge. Not as an appellate judge. That was six years of no one threatening. But then I became chief, and, again, those kinds of threats came up. It is an issue.

We, as judges, have to know that now. Before we were anonymous. We are not advocates. We are not partisan. The greatest part of our safety is going to come from ourselves. Self-awareness. Being careful if we even are on social media. Being careful for our families. I also think it is us getting out there. More and more. Let people know what we do. We decide controversy, and we do it transparently. We write; we speak. It is a fair process. I think we have to tell people more and more about that. Explain it.

I’m a huge fan of civics. I started a civics program in the branch. That’s a way for us to get out. Talk about ourselves. Talk about the process. Not about cases. Educate the new generation coming up. We have to be our best security advisors. Be aware of our surroundings and situational awareness. We were talking about the police car in front of my house. My husband was in law enforcement. I was aware of threats and his concern. We live in a new world. We have to be careful on social media, if we are using it.

Is there any one opinion that stands out for you? Other reflections?

One of the bigger cases was the Garcia case. We decided an undocumented immigrant who passed the California bar exam could have his license. It was a narrow question.

As a young lawyer, I could not envision working in the law. So impassioned. How much I’ve learned. It’s been exciting and hasn’t felt like 38 years. As a young lawyer until now, we’ve seen so much change. California is for the better. I hope it continues. This rich environment. I’ve worked in the executive branch and the legislative branch. The judicial branch is such an essential branch of government. So much talk about democracy. We can still be fair and transparent. To harmonize the law. I’m happy to watch it on the sidelines.

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By Judge Margaret Kuroda Masunaga


Judge Margaret Kuroda Masunaga (Ret.) serves on the ABA Judicial Division Executive Committee of the National Conference of State Trial Judges and is co-chair of The Judges’ Journal editorial board.