Chief justice of California Supreme Court won't seek second term

FILE - In this March 23, 2015, file photo, California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye delivers her State of the Judiciary address at the Capitol in Sacramento, Calif. The California Supreme Court ruled Monday, Dec. 28, 2020, that inmates convicted of what the state defines as nonviolent sex crimes cannot be denied a chance at earlier release under a ballot measure approved by nearly two-thirds of voters four years ago. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File)
California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye says she will not seek reelection and will leave the bench when her current term expires next year. (Associated Press)
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For the record:
1:34 p.m. July 27, 2022: This article previously stated that Justice Carol Corrigan was appointed to the California Supreme Court by Gov. Pete Wilson. She was appointed to that court by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye will not seek reelection to the state's Supreme Court after her term concludes next year, she confirmed Wednesday.

Cantil-Sakauye's departure will mean a third appointment to the state's high court for Gov. Gavin Newsom if he wins reelection in November. Newsom, a Democrat, has positioned California as a liberal foil to other, more conservative states and to the newly dominant conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court.

In a statement, Newsom praised Cantil-Sakauye, saying she "steered our state’s courts through times of great challenge and opportunity, championing important reforms to make our justice system fairer and more transparent, and expanding equal access to justice for all Californians."

He called her a "fierce defender of access to the courts," including during the COVID-19 pandemic, and "a leading voice for bail reform, calling out its disproportionate impacts on low-income people."

Cantil-Sakauye, the first person of color and the second woman to serve as chief, said she told the governor during a brief conversation Wednesday that she would help make sure her replacement had a "smooth transition."

She said she had informed her fellow justices, who responded with "moans and groans and exclamations of concern and dismay and congratulations."

Cantil-Sakauye said leaving was "not an easy decision" but was the right one now because the court is in a "solid, sustainable place" and has a smart, collegial set of justices committed to the rule of law and California's future.

Cantil-Sakauye's term ends Jan. 1, when she will be 63 years old. She said she doesn't know what is next for her, but doesn't plan on going into politics — or retiring completely.

"My husband said, 'You've got to do something,'" she said with a smile during a Wednesday morning video call with reporters.

Under Cantil-Sakauye, the seven justices on the court have routinely been in agreement on decisions that reflect the court's general left-of-center orientation. Now, Newsom faces a choice between maintaining the status quo or appointing a more liberal chief justice who could pull the court further to the left, legal analysts said.

"In recent years the California Supreme Court has coalesced into a group of moderate justices who decide nearly 90% of their cases unanimously, and Chief Justice Cantil-Sakauye's retirement may be an inflection point for that dynamic," said David A. Carrillo, executive director of Berkeley Law's California Constitution Center, in a statement to The Times. "So one factor in choosing a new Chief Justice is how likely that person is to continue the court's current consensus culture."

Newsom could elevate one of the court's associate justices to chief and name a new associate justice, or appoint a newcomer directly to the chief's position.

Newsom's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on whether he has specific candidates in mind to replace Cantil-Sakauye.

California's Supreme Court justices are selected by the governor to serve 12-year terms but must be confirmed by a state judicial commission and then by voters. To be eligible, candidates must have been a member of the State Bar of California or a judge in a California court for at least 10 years.

In addition to hearing cases alongside six associate justices, the chief justice is the administrative leader of the high court and chairs the Judicial Council of California, which sets administrative policy for all state courts.

Cantil-Sakauye said Newsom "will have a diverse pool of exceptionally well-qualified jurists and legal professionals to choose from, and I believe the judiciary, the 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 who she believes would do well in her role, but only if the governor asked for one.

"Responding with a list is more impactful when someone asks," she said.

She declined to name anyone she would put on that list.

Cantil-Sakauye has been viewed by legal analysts as centrist on civil matters but more conservative on criminal law. Her term was defined in part by a liberalization of the court as older, more conservative justices retired and were replaced by judges appointed by Newsom and his predecessor, Gov. Jerry Brown, also a Democrat.

Cantil-Sakauye also had to navigate budget cuts and the pandemic, which closed state courts for a time, necessitated more virtual proceedings and demanded an entirely new system of safety protocols.

Cantil-Sakauye captured national attention in 2017 when she called on the Trump administration to remove federal immigration agents from California's state courthouses, where she said they were "stalking" people in ways that could erode public trust in the state courts.

"Courthouses should not be used as bait in the necessary enforcement of our country’s immigration laws," she wrote to then-Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions and Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly.

She 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. Asked about that Wednesday, and whether she sees the pendulum reversing amid rising crime concerns, Cantil-Sakauye said that is a question for policymakers, not judges.

"I feel that the reforms are from the people and our decision makers and by initiative, and I don't presume to know better than how they think about this reform," she said.

She also said, however, that she has "watched with interest the reformation of the justice system and the sentencing laws and the treatment of juveniles, and I think California is moving in the right direction."

Cantil-Sakauye was sworn in as the state's 28th chief justice in January 2011 after being selected for the role by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, confirmed by the Commission on Judicial Appointments and winning a general election for the seat in 2010.

She was born in Sacramento in 1959, served as a prosecutor for Sacramento County and worked for former Gov. George Deukmejian as deputy legal affairs secretary and deputy legislative secretary.

Before her appointment to the high court, Cantil-Sakauye was a judge on a Sacramento appeals court.

When Newsom replaces Cantil-Sakauye, he and Brown each will have appointed three members of the current court. The seventh justice, Carol Corrigan, was appointed by Schwarzenegger.

Carrillo wrote in an online post Wednesday that Cantil-Sakauye "leaves California’s courts in a far better state than when she arrived in 2011," when the judicial branch's budget had taken a blow in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis.

Since then, she has "secured substantial funding increases" and "pursued initiatives to expand remote court access during the coronavirus pandemic," Carrillo wrote.

He said Cantil-Sakauye also "arguably leaves office at the peak of her influence" and credited her with "reversing a long trend of close vote splits and rancorous dissents."

Regardless of who replaces Cantil-Sakauye, the state's high court could find itself squaring off with increasing frequency with the more conservative U.S. Supreme Court on areas of the law that cross federal and state boundaries — such as labor, arbitration and the environment.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.