State's chief justice details her rise to the top

  • Chief Justice of California Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye, right, speaks with Karin Demarest during a symposium, in Weill Hall at the Green Music Center, on the Sonoma State University campus, in Rohnert Park on Friday, April 11, 2014. (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)

Tani Cantil-Sakauye wasn't always so assertive.

Being an Asian woman from a male-dominated family, she was taught not to raise her voice or question authority. She let people interrupt her frequently.

But one day, as a young prosecutor, she decided to change. When a defense attorney tried to talk over her, she cut him off, provoking a courtroom argument that had to be settled by the judge.

"He said, 'She interrupted me,'" she recalled Friday. "And I said, 'He interrupted me.' The judge said, 'Why, Ms. Cantil, I think you're right. You may proceed.'"

It was an epiphany of sorts for Cantil-Sakauye, who went on to distinguish herself at the Sacramento County District Attorney's Office and later, get appointed to be a judge herself.

In 2011, after serving on the appeals bench, she was sworn in as the chief justice of the state Supreme Court, the first Filipina-American woman to hold the post.

"Sometimes I say to myself, 'My great-grandmother would kill for the opportunities I had,'" she said.

On Friday, the 54-year-old jurist shared her story with about 1,000 middle and high school students gathered at Sonoma State University's Green Music Center.

The event was co-sponsored by 10,000 Degrees, a San Rafael-based nonprofit focused on putting 10,000 students from low-income households on the path to college each year. Friday's program, titled "Imagine Yourself ...," was designed to inspire students by giving them an opportunity to engage in dialogue with civic leaders who overcame challenging backgrounds.

Many who listened to the state's top judge and other speakers said they were inspired to pursue higher education.

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