February 9, 2022 By Whitelaw Reid, wdr4d@virginia.edu

Tani Cantil-Sakauye Headshot

All Rise: California Chief Justice Teaching Master’s Course at UVA This Semester

California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye is teaching a course called “Constitutional Framework of Public Safety.”

In the 11 years since she was sworn in as the 28th chief justice of the Supreme Court of California, Tani Cantil-Sakauye has, among many accomplishments, created bail reform that has improved the public’s access to justice.

No doubt, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better person to teach a course called “Constitutional Framework of Public Safety.”

That’s what Bryon Gustafson, an assistant professor in the University of Virginia’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies, thought when he asked Cantil-Sakauye to teach the course, which is part of the school’s new master’s degree program in public safety that launched last year and he is directing.

“She’s one of the most significant jurists in America, authoring decisions with big impact for one in eight Americans,” said Gustafson, a former chief of police at the Stockton Unified School District Police Department in Stockton, California. “Early in her career as a judge, she signed the first-ever DNA search warrant in this country. And before that, she was a prosecutor. Her expertise on issues of law and public safety is second to none.”

The course is designed to be relevant for professionals in many public safety fields: law enforcement, security, fire and rescue, and more.

So far, so good, according to Cantil-Sakauye, who is co-teaching the course asynchronously with Carolyn Johnson.

“My experience as a UVA professor, thus far, has been rewarding and fulfilling,” Cantil-Sakauye said. “[Johnson] has created an engaging educational environment and the graduate students thoughtfully share their views and experiences.”

UVA Today caught up with Cantil-Sakauye, the first Filipino American and second woman to serve in her state’s highest judicial office.

Q. I’m sure any law school in America would welcome you as a lecturer. What drew you to the Master of Public Safety program at UVA? 

 A. I was drawn to the master’s program at UVA for several reasons. First, the University has an excellent reputation and I support its strong efforts to make a professional, top-notch graduate program widely available to working students who are striving to enhance their service to the public, while maintaining their jobs and supporting their families. Second, it is also a plus that there is a California connection with Dr. Bryon Gustafson at the helm of the program.

Q. Why, with as busy and difficult of a day job that you have, do you teach? 

A. While it is true that I have a busy day job, I teach and am involved because I am passionate about justice, civics and the law. UVA offers me a unique opportunity to teach in all these areas to students who are nationwide public safety professionals and have life experiences to share. 

The California Constitution designates me as chair of the Judicial Council, the policy- and rule-making body of the judicial branch of government. In this capacity, I have pursued many different educational initiatives, and one of my favorites is the Power of Democracy initiative, wherein I have convened state jurists, federal jurists, lawyers, educators and other constitutional officers to focus on civics education programs with an emphasis on the judiciary, for students in grades K-12. 

Additionally, I often speak at law-related functions to student, lawyer and judicial audiences about the law, justice or the state of the judiciary.

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Q. You’re teaching the “Constitutional Framework of Public Safety” course. What do want your students – who are public safety leaders – to be thinking about in this area? What are the big issues you want to teach about?

A. In the course I am helping to teach, “The Constitutional Framework of Public Safety,” I want the students, public safety leaders, to gain a greater understanding of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. As the students discuss the meaning and policy behind these critical documents, I hope that they will see the continuing, contemporary relevance of these ideas to today’s conflicts and to relate to the legal issues courts are resolving.

Q. Will your husband, a retired police lieutenant, be making any special guest appearances?

A. My husband would have to be coaxed into making a guest appearance in a classroom. In retirement, he works as a consultant; however, he is usually familiar with his audience. He has great interest in the class, but prefers to be off-camera!

Q. You started your legal career as a prosecutor and as chief justice, you’ve pushed for cash bail reform and for courthouses to be off-limits for immigration enforcement. How do these ideas relate to your views on “public safety,” writ large?

A. As the chief justice of California, I wear many hats. One hat is the chief justice of the Supreme Court, where I sit and decide cases with my six colleagues, carry the same caseload and participate with no greater influence on any one case than one of my brethren. With that hat, I also have administration, personnel and budget duties within the court. 

In my second hat, as the chair of the Judicial Council (referenced above), among other responsibilities I work with the council (approximately 31 jurists, lawyers and professional staff) with the assistance of the highly regarded Judicial Council staff to study legal issues, research the impacts of the law, convene diverse and inclusive workgroups to make recommendations and sponsor legislation. With this hat on, as chair of the council, and with workgroups I have appointed, we have studied legal issues and court practices that affect access to justice and the fairness of the system. 

A few examples of our work include the study of the fairness of cash bail, the impact of fines and fees on the most vulnerable of our residents, meaningful language access, the use of self-help services for access to justice, a civil Gideon [also known as a “civil right to counsel”] program, and the list goes on and on. So, in answer to your question, the ideas you reference above, like all that we do in the policy arena in the California judiciary, relate to equal access to justice.

Q. On a lighter note, there have been so many films and television programs that center on the law or legal system. Are there ones that you feel have done really good jobs of depicting the world that you work in? Any favorites?

A. There are many entertaining justice and court programs out there, but few if any realistic ones, at least in my opinion. I am not an expert in this area, though, because for me at least, when I want to decompress, I would rather not be even remotely reminded of my work. I know this is not true for others. 

When my husband and I watch a law enforcement show together, he regales me with details about the weapons, or the lack of strategic tactics, or the outright fiction of the process.

Q. Your job entails making really big decisions that affect a great number of people. I imagine there are times when that feels like such a heavy responsibility. How do you navigate those waters, and do you have any advice for people in other job sectors who have tough decisions of their own to make?

A. Be as informed and prepared as possible, understand your role, listen respectfully to all sides, and do not bring any emotion to the task at hand. That is how I do it, anyway.

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Whitelaw Reid

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