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SAN FRANCISCO — Speakers mostly came to praise Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's chief justice nominee Wednesday rather than closely question her about her qualifications or the many challenges facing the state judiciary.

After two hours of compliments, best wishes and historical context, the three-member Commission on Judicial Appointment unanimously approved Tani Cantil-Sakauye, whose name will be placed unopposed on the November ballot.

If voters approve the nomination, the appellate judge will serve a 12-year term as California's top judge.

Cantil-Sakauye, 50, would replace Chief Justice Ron George, who announced that he's retiring Jan. 2. She would be the first minority and just the second woman to lead the state's high court — two points raised throughout the hearing.

The confirmation was expected, with the commission receiving two dozen letters of bipartisan support for Cantil-Sakauye. Eleven of the 13 witnesses at the hearing spoke in support of her.

"She is the perfect person to assume the duties of the chief justice," said Justice Arthur Scotland, her colleague on the 3rd District Court of Appeal in Sacramento, where Cantil-Sakauye continues to work full-time.

The commission is chaired by George and includes state Attorney General Jerry Brown, the Democratic nominee for governor, and Court of Appeal Justice Joan Dempsey Klein, who has served as the presiding justice of the Los Angeles branch of the appellate court since 1978 and has been an active supporter of recruiting more women to the bench.

Klein testified before the Senate during its hearing on the appointment of Sandra Day O'Connor to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1981.

"Do you realize the huge responsibility to yourself and your gender?" Klein asked Cantil-Sakauye.

The nominee responded by acknowledging Klein's pioneering path as a female judge and vowed to work hard to be a successful state chief justice.

Brown spent about 10 minutes eliciting her thoughts on the court system's role in the state's $19 billion budget deficit.

Complaining about judges ordering governments to comply with costly laws regardless of the financial situation is one of Brown's favorite gubernatorial campaign planks, and he generally asked the nominee if she took costs into consideration in her work.

Cantil-Sakauye said she was guided by previously decided cases when ruling on issues before her and told Brown she had responsibilities to help the state balance its books as an administrator in charge of a $4 billion annual budget.

For the past two years, Cantil-Sakauye has served on the Judicial Council, a 28-member board that controls the judiciary's annual budget and sets policy for state courts.

Two speakers opposed the nominee, including E.T Snell, who described himself as a "clown community activist" from San Bernardino during a rambling five-minute presentation. He complained that security officials prohibited him from donning his clown costume for the hearing and called the nominee "judicially unqualified" because of insensitivity to prisoners.

Sacramento attorney Geoffrey Graybill provided more composed opposition, accusing the nominee of being biased toward women, especially in domestic violence cases.

Cantil-Sakauye called her critics misinformed and misguided and said she would stand behind her record.

Though she was little known outside legal circles before her nomination, Cantil-Sakauye has served quietly in influential positions.

Before becoming a judge at age 30 in 1990, she worked as Gov. George Deukmejian's deputy legal affairs secretary and as a deputy legislative secretary — two powerful political posts.

She was also a Sacramento County prosecutor for four years after graduating from the University of California, Davis law school in 1984.

Cantil-Sakauye is a Sacramento native and resident who is married to a police officer and has two daughters, ages 14 and 11.

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