Tani Cantil-Sakauye is the first Asian-Filipina American and the second woman to serve as the state’s chief justice.
Students and community members gathered at the UC Berkeley School of Law to hear Cantil-Sakauye, who spoke about challenges facing the state’s justice system, at an event hosted by the Berkeley Forum on Wednesday.
Cantil-Sakauye is the leader of California’s judicial branch of government and chair of the state’s Judicial Council. At the event, she emphasized the importance of diversity in the state’s judicial body, recalling her past difficulties as a woman of color in the field of law.
“We have diversity on the bench in which the majority are people of color and are women. … We end up being more reflective of community, so there is more public trust,” Cantil-Sakauye said at the event. “When people come in to speak, they see people who look like them.”
The Supreme Court of California consists of the chief justice of California and six associate justices, each appointed or nominated by the governor.
When Cantil-Sakauye was 9, her mother went to court to fight against their home eviction but felt disrespected in the system as a woman of color. Cantil-Sakauye said this experience was part of what drove her to pursue law.
“As an Asian-American woman, her speech was very riveting … and I was able to understand more about California’s judicial system,” said Gina Han, a campus sophomore.
According to Cantil-Sakauye, California serves the largest and most diverse population.
The three most common cases heard in the California Supreme Court include those of statewide importance, death cases and conflicts arising from disagreement among the Court of Appeals, Cantil-Sakauye said. She mentioned, however, that juvenile cases are the most memorable.
“These cases make us think differently,” Cantil-Sakauye said. “We have to make amends and give people an opportunity to reform.”
California’s judicial branch faces challenges such as budget restraints and reliance on paper in a technological era, she said at the event.
David Carrillo, executive director of the California Constitution Center at Berkeley Law, said in an email that California’s judicial system is the largest in the country, serving 38 million people, and that it receives “barely two pennies per dollar of the state budget.” The system’s more than 2,000 judicial officers handle nearly 8 million cases each year, he added.
Cantil-Sakauye said at the event that she has aimed to build partnerships to overcome the state’s fiscal crisis, improve the branch’s accountability and transparency, and ensure due process for as many as possible.
“We became judges not to get rich but the feeling of enrichment of helping people,” Cantil-Sakuaye said. “A good judge is able to work through intractable problems … and is truly objective.”