When she was still a young law student at UC Davis, Tani Cantil-Sakauye made good tip money dealing blackjack at Harrah’s Lake Tahoe casino. By her own account, she could hit you with a card from across the room. But as Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court, Cantil-Sakauye has been dealt a pretty weak hand.
In her interview with me this week, the Chief said severe state budget cuts had created a “two-tier system of justice” in California, where shuttered courthouses and shorter courtroom hours are “basically denying justice across the state.”
Those who suffer most, she said, are “low-income, middle-income businesses” trying to resolve disputes.
“The truth is, those who can will use other, private alternatives” to settle their differences, she added.
“But those of us who need to go to the court, who don’t have those resources, find ourselves frankly getting a second system of justice.”
In a talk at the Public Policy Institute earlier this year, Cantil-Sakauye complained that state budget cuts were threatening a “dismemberment of the judicial branch.” Some of those cuts have been restored in the current year budget, but the reductions are still widely felt.
Her predecessor, Ronald George, was widely praised for many things, including his acumen cultivating relationships in Sacramento, where decisions on court funding get made. George, who was appointed and elevated to Chief Justice by then-Gov. Pete Wilson, was known for a soothing, nonconfrontational style that may have played well at the state capitol.
Judges generally avoid discussing politics. Like journalists, they get paid to evaluate the facts of each case and set aside their personal views. So it’s no surprise that when I asked Cantil-Sakauye this week for her views about the Republican Party, her public information officers cried foul.
“You shouldn’t have asked her about that,” a testy Peter Allen said to me after the interview.
Cantil-Sakauye was first named to the Sacramento Municipal Court in 1990 by her boss, then-Gov. George Deukmejian. She was elevated on the bench by Republican Governors Pete Wilson and then Arnold Schwarzenegger, who named her Chief Justice in 2010.
When I spoke to her back in 2011, shortly after she became Chief, she said she joined the Republican Party when she was “barely 18” to get an internship with State Sen. Jim Nielsen, whom she described as “a law and order man.” She actually never took that internship, but later went to work for Gov. Deukmejian.
“My ideals of law and order resonated with George Deukmejian’s, and I’ve remained a Republican ever since,” she told me back then.
California’s judicial system is relatively free of unseemly politics. Unlike some states, where anyone can run for the supreme court and raise unlimited campaign contributions to win, California Supreme Court justices are appointed by the governor, confirmed by a judicial panel, and then approved again every 12 years by the voters. This process allows them to stay relatively removed from the political fray.
Perhaps with that in mind, several prominent attorneys and civic leaders announced this week the formation of a new nonprofit foundation to advocate for California courts. The Foundation for Democracy and Justice counts among its founders former UC President Mark Yudof and Allan Zaremberg, president of the California Chamber of Commerce, both of whom know their way around the state capitol quite well.
The video above is from the premiere episode of KQED NEWSROOM, a weekly news magazine program on television, radio and online, featuring Thuy Vu and Scott Shafer. Tune in to KQED Public Television 9 on Friday, Oct. 18, at 8 p.m. to watch the entire show. Listen to a rebroadcast at KQED Public Radio 88.5 FM on Sunday, Oct. 20, at 6 p.m.