On Wednesday, she confirmed that California state judge Tani Cantell Sakawe will not seek re-election to the state Supreme Court after her term expires next year.
Cantell Sakawe’s departure will mean a third appointment to the state Supreme Court for Governor Gavin Newsom if he wins re-election in November. Newsom, a Democrat, has positioned California as a liberal thorn for other, more conservative states and for the newly dominant conservative majority in the U.S. Supreme Court.
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1:34 PM July 27 2022This article previously reported that Judge Carol Corrigan was appointed to the California Supreme Court by Governor Pete Wilson. She was appointed to that court by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.
In a statement, Newsom commended Cantell Sakawe, saying she “has led our state’s courts through times of great challenges and opportunity, championed important reforms to make our judicial system more fair and transparent, and expand equal access to justice for all Californians.”
He called her a “fierce advocate for access to the courts,” including during the COVID-19 pandemic, and a “leading voice for bail reform, calling for its disproportionate effects on low-income people.”
Cantel Sakawe, the first person of color and second woman to serve as president, said she told the governor during a brief conversation Wednesday that she would help make sure her replacement goes through a “smooth transition.”
She said she told her fellow judges, who responded with “groans and groans and wonder with concern, dismay and congratulations.”
Cantell Sakawe said leaving “wasn’t an easy decision” but it was the right decision now because the court is in a “strong and sustainable place” and has an intelligent and collegial group of judges committed to the rule of law and California’s future.
Cantel Sakawe’s term ends on January 1, when she turns 63. She said she doesn’t know what’s next for her, but she’s not planning to go into politics — or retire entirely.
“My husband said, ‘You have to do something,'” she said with a smile during a Wednesday morning video call with reporters.
Under Cantel Sakawe, the Court’s seven justices routinely agreed on decisions that reflected the court’s overall center-left orientation. Legal analysts said Newsom now faces the choice between maintaining the status quo or appointing a more liberal chief justice who could push the court to the left.
“In recent years, the California Supreme Court has coalesced into a group of moderate justices who decide nearly 90% of their cases unanimously, and the retirement of Chief Justice Cantell Sakawe may be a turning point in this dynamic,” said David A. Carrillo, executive director. Director of the California Constitution Center at Berkeley Law, told The Times. “So one factor in choosing a new chief justice is how likely that person is to persist in the court’s current consensus culture.”
Newsom could elevate one of the Court’s associate justices to the office of president and nominate a new associate justice, or appoint a newcomer directly to the office of president.
Newsom’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on whether it has specific candidates to replace Cantell Sakawe.
California Supreme Court justices are chosen by the governor to serve 12-year terms but must be confirmed by a state judicial commission and then by electors. To be eligible, candidates must have been a member of the California Bar Association or a California court judge for at least 10 years.
In addition to hearing cases along with six associate justices, the chief justice is the administrative leader of the Supreme Court and chairs the California Judicial Council, which sets administrative policy for all state courts.
Cantell Sakawe said Newsom “will have a variety of well-qualified lawyers and legal professionals to choose from, and I believe the judiciary, courts and access to justice in California will be in good hands.”
She said she would be happy to provide Newsom with a short list of judges she believes would do well for her role, but only if the governor requests it.
“Responding with a list is more impactful when someone asks,” she said.
She declined to name anyone she would include on that list.
Cantel Sakawe is seen by legal analysts as a moderate in civil matters but more conservative in criminal law. Its mandate was defined in part by the liberalization of the court as the older, more conservative justices retired and replaced with judges appointed by Newsom and his predecessor, Governor Jerry Brown, also a Democrat.
Cantel Sakawe has also had to contend with budget cuts and the pandemic, which has shuttered state courts for some time, necessitated more default procedures and demanded an entirely new system of safety protocols.
Cantell Sakawe captured national attention in 2017 when the Trump administration called for federal immigration agents to be removed from California’s state courts, saying they “stalk” people in ways that could erode public trust in state courts.
“Courts should not be used as bait in the necessary enforcement of our country’s immigration laws,” she wrote to Ati at the time. General Jeff Sessions and Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly.
It also oversaw the state’s highest court at a time when criminal justice was under intense scrutiny and the state passed a number of liberal reforms. When asked about it Wednesday, and whether she sees the pendulum reversing amid rising crime fears, Cantell Sakawe said that’s a question for policymakers, not judges.
“I feel the reforms are from the people and our decision makers and through the initiative, and I don’t suppose I know better than what they think about this reform,” she said.
She also said, however, that she “watched with interest the reform of the justice system and the sentencing and treatment of juvenile laws, and I believe California is heading in the right direction.”
Cantel Sakawe was sworn in as the state’s 28th Chief Justice in January 2011 after being selected for the role by the then-governor. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, was confirmed by the Judicial Appointments Committee and won the general election for the seat in 2010.
Born in Sacramento in 1959, she worked as a Sacramento County District Attorney and worked with former Governor George Deokmjian as Deputy Secretary of Legal Affairs and Deputy Legislative Secretary.
Prior to her appointment to the Supreme Court, Cantell Sakawe was a judge on the Sacramento Court of Appeals.
When Newsom replaces Cantell Sakawe, he and Brown will appoint three members to the current court. The seventh judge, Carol Corrigan, was appointed by Schwarzenegger.
Carrillo wrote in an online post Wednesday that Cantel Sakawe “leaves California courts in much better shape than when they arrived in 2011,” when the judicial branch’s budget took a hit in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis.
Since then, it has “secured significant increases in funding” and “followed initiatives to expand access to remote courts during the coronavirus pandemic,” Carrillo wrote.
He said Cantel Sakawe also “arguably left office at the height of her influence” and credited her with “reversing a long trend of close voting divisions and malevolent opponents”.
Regardless of who replaces Cantel Sakawe, the state Supreme Court could find itself in increasing tension with the more conservative US Supreme Court in areas of law that transcend federal and state boundaries — such as labor, arbitration, and the environment.
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