August 07, 2016

“The nation needs you now,” California chief justice tells the ABA

The American Bar Association Annual Meeting is like an “unlawyer Olympics,” mused Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye, chief justice of the California Supreme Court, as she began her keynote speech on Aug. 7 at the ABA Annual Meeting in San Francisco. Like the Olympics now being held in Rio de Janero, she said, it’s a gathering of the “best and brightest, and most skilled,” minus the competitive aspect.

California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye delivered the ABA Annual Meeting keynote address.


Cantil-Sakauye was introduced by ABA President Paulette Brown, who said California’s first Filipina American chief justice, sworn in in 2011, is a “persistent voice for diversity and inclusion.”

The chief justice started her legal career working as a deputy district attorney in Sacramento and in 1990 was appointed to municipal court. She was eventually appointed to progressive judicial posts by three different California governors.

Brown quoted Cantil-Sakauye as once saying she received her work ethic from strong Filipina women, whom she described “as beautiful house orchids with titanium spines.”

Noting that the chief justice was inspired by seeing a woman lawyer of color give a speech when she was young, Brown said that today Cantil-Sakauye “strives to be a consistent supporter, role model, encourager and mentor to women of all ages.”

In applauding her civil discourse, Brown quoted Cantil-Sakauye as saying after she was named appellate judge in 2005, “I think people perceive my politeness as weakness. It is not.It is a threshold for entering into robust debate.”

The chief justice began her speech by giving a snapshot of the state she serves: California has 39 million people and has a “majority minority” population, among whom 20 to 40 percent speak a language other than English at home. The state, she said, has diverse cities and a diverse legislature focused on social justice. She said 7 to 10 million cases are filed in California courts each year, which keeps its 2,000 judicial officers and 225,000 lawyers busy.

When she became chief justice in 2011, the state was in the middle of the worst recession in California history, and her budget was cut 30 percent, courthouses were closed and staff was let go.

But that year, she said, lawyers and judges came forward and formed the Open Courts Coalition that marched and rallied and worked with the governor to find solutions.

The solutions, she said, “came from you: the lawyers, the advocates. The people who understood the value of your clients needs.”

And their efforts made a difference: 50 percent to 70 percent of what had been cut has now been restored.

“But these are still troubling times,” Cantil-Sakauye said.

“We went to law school to be a voice for someone other than ourselves,” she said. “The fact that you are here at the ABA tells me that you continue to have in your legal DNA the drive and the passion to do right for others.”

Alluding to the current racial unrest and violence, the chief justice said change will require understanding, discussion, diversity, professional problem-solvers and conflict resolution.

“It’s going to mean that we have to invite people to the table, people who are not like us,” she said. “People who can tell us a different story and tell us a different experience.”

“And for that we need you. The nation needs you now,” she implored.

“I call upon you to know your strength, and to use it.”