In a courtroom electric with pride from both her colleagues on the bench and leaders of the Filipino legal community, California chief justice nominee Tani Cantil-Sakauye was confirmed Wednesday by the Commission on Judicial Appointments.
If further confirmed by the electorate in November, she will become the 28th leader of the state's judicial branch.
Her confirmation, said Melvin Avanzado, president of the Philippine American Bar Association, will provide "a tremendous amount of inspiration and strength to those of us who otherwise may not aspire to the bench."
The hearing before the state Commission on Judicial Appointments focused on the themes of Cantil-Sakauye's humble beginnings, broad-based experience and the historic nature of her confirmation. Cantil-Sakauye, whose parents cut sugar cane in Hawaii and harvested crops in California's Central Valley, would give the Supreme Court a female majority and its first Filipino-American justice.
Judicial independence and leadership were the other themes of the day. Republicans and Democrats, a prosecutor and a public defender, a former legislator and current judges assured the commission that Cantil-Sakauye would rule with an even hand and work constructively with other governmental stakeholders.
A note of caution was sounded by Attorney General Jerry Brown, one of the three members of the Commission on Judicial Appointments. Brown, who also is running for governor this fall, cautioned Cantil-Sakauye about the possibility of budget cuts for the judiciary, and pressed her about whether she would consider the budgetary impacts of her rulings. "Are you able to articulate how you would take into account -- if you would take it into account at all -- who pays?"
Cost is always a factor, but not the only factor, Cantil-Sakauye answered. "Our heads are always really into the rule of law."
But, she said, on the administrative side, the judicial branch has had to tighten its belt just as the other two branches have. "We must also look to our house and how we operate," she said.
All seven Supreme Court justices were on hand for Wednesday's hearing, and two of Cantil-Sakauye's colleagues on the 3rd District Court of Appeal, Presiding Justice Arthur Scotland and Justice Vance Raye, testified on Cantil-Sakauye's behalf. So did Mona Pasquil, a Filipina who served several months as acting lieutenant governor earlier this year, and leaders from four Filipino bar associations and service groups.
"It brings a tear to my eye when people mention my grandparents or mention the history of Filipinos in California," Cantil-Sakauye said moments after the commission -- made up of Chief Justice Ronald George, 2nd District Justice Joan Dempsey Klein and AG Brown -- voted to confirm her.
Later, speaking to the press, Cantil-Sakauye elaborated on that thought, but said that the rule of law is her guiding force.
"As a Filipina or as a mother or as a 50-year-old woman in this society -- that always influences how I see the facts ... but in terms of the rule of law, I apply the rule of law based on precedent and stare decisis."
She also put a little more focus on her leadership style.
"I like to fully know the facts before I make a decision," Cantil-Sakauye told reporters. "And so, in that way, I am probably inclusive and pretty collaborative. But I like to get to a decision."
Cantil-Sakauye said she would sit down and listen to the Alliance of California Judges, a group of judges that has sparred with George amid tension between the chief justice's efforts to create a centralized judicial branch and trial courts judges' desire to retain local control.
And Cantil-Sakauye was cautious about one of the issues advanced by that group whether she would support closing some courts if the judiciary's budget takes a turn for the worse. "If the state budget falls through, then that's a matter for the Judicial Council to consider," she said. "It's a matter for the AOC lobbyists and the CJA to find out what we can cobble together, where we go from here, and learning historically what court closure caused last year. But that's not a unilateral decision. It wasn't then, it isn't now. It wouldn't be for me to make."
During the hearing she said she understands the struggles trial courts face, having spent 14 years on the Sacramento bench.
In personally addressing the commission, Cantil-Sakauye sounded both confident and humble notes.
"I feel that I am eminently qualified to lead," she told the commission. But, she added, "You prepare yourself for this kind of position by learning from the leadership of others," she said, noting that she'd been learning since the start of her legal career as a young prosecutor, from "the grizzled, fallen-from honor, banished-from-grace who were sent down to menial assignments, i.e., with me."
She also directly answered the two people who testified against her, one who declared himself a "clown activist" from San Bernardino County and suggested she is too harsh in her criminal rulings, and the other a Sacramento attorney who accused her of gender bias in family law matters and with plowing over dissent on a Judicial Council committee. She called the criticisms "false and misinformed and misguided."
Other speakers were much more supportive. Retired Los Angeles County Judge Terry Friedman, a former legislator, told the commission that Cantil-Sakauye has demonstrated an ability to work with people and develop relationships that would be good for the judiciary.
Third District PJ Scotland, meanwhile, called her "an exceptionally smart and independent thinker."
"I sure know that, because she hasn't always agreed with me," Scotland said.
Presiding Judge Steve White of Sacramento County Superior Court said Cantil-Sakauye's former colleagues were heartily in her corner, and noted that judges with experience on trial courts distinguishes California's from other high courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court.
Raye, who had hired Cantil-Sakauye for the job under Deukmejian, said her style is "anchored in common sense for how the world works and how people operate." He said he marvels at "the clarity of her thoughts and the force and power of her voice."