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Former Chief Justice of California Tani Cantil-Sakauye Discusses Breaking Barriers and the Importance of Diverse Perspectives at President’s Speaker Series

Tani Cantil-Sakauye

On Thursday, February 29, 2024, former chief justice of California Tani Cantil-Sakauye, the president and CEO of the Public Policy Institute of California, discussed her passion for civil discourse and public policy at the President’s Speaker Series event, “What the Future Holds for Californians.” Moderated by Naomi Goodno, professor of law at the Pepperdine Caruso School of Law, Cantil-Sakauye explored her diverse and distinguished career in both the legal and judicial spheres, breaking barriers as the first Filipino and first woman of color to serve as California's chief justice, and the primary challenges facing California’s future.

Goodno began the conversation by asking Cantil-Sakauye to expand on the pivotal moments and experiences that have shaped her long and illustrious career. According to Cantil-Sakauye, she came from a “lower income, lower education family” and was often looked down upon within her own Filipino community for being the youngest in her family and a girl. “In a community where I was often overlooked or interrupted, I developed a keen sense of observation and a keen sense of seeing the person who isn't participating and the person who hasn't been heard,” she shared. “My parents didn't have an education, so that became the key component of my life—to get an education and find a career path.” 

A defining moment in her career, Cantil-Sakauye explained, came when she began working for governor George Deukmejian and realized the impact and influence of these critical positions in government. “I saw the seat of power and the three branches of government in action—I also witnessed law made, law directed, and law hijacked. I learned so much about leadership, compassion, kindness, and civility working at such a high level of public service. That changed my life forever, and I don't really know where I would have gone had I not had that experience.”

When asked to reflect on the triumphs of her career and her role breaking barriers for women in the government sector, she explained it was the difficult moments that challenged and helped advance her the most professionally. “When I reflect on all of the experiences I had working my way up and through all the good, it was mostly the marginal and negative moments that really helped me.”

Additionally, Goodno and Cantil-Sakauye discussed California and the challenges and strengths of the state looking ahead to the future. Cantil-Sakauye explained that diversity of perspective is an important aspect of any state’s success and that one of California’s key strengths is the state’s diversity of cultures, ideas, and values. However, the difficulty is continuing to recognize and pursue the needs of a large and diverse population.

“California is unique, and its trends need to be studied, because 10 years from now, if we don't intervene in some of these trends or shape them in some way, they can end up shaping us,” said Cantil-Sakauye. “We do need different voices at the table to start to meet unmet needs and to ask and question assumptions. I'm not saying questioning assumptions always means change, but it helps other people understand why we operate the way we do, and it's important to reassess our structures so we can identify where change is needed.”

Watch the full-length broadcast of Cantil-Sakauye’s discussion, as well as previous President’s Speaker Series events, on the President’s Speaker Series website.