Tani Cantil-Sakauye’s father, a Kohala native, once told her she should learn how to type, because then she might become an assistant somewhere.
It was, she said during a visit to West Hawaii Friday, advice that at the time seemed sound.
Cantil-Sakauye eventually surpassed her father’s expectations — in 2010, she was named Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court. Her success, first as a lawyer and then as a judge, was something she never imagined growing up in California the youngest child, and a daughter, in a Filipino family, she told Kealakehe High School and Konawaena High School students Friday morning.
“When I grew up, there was no one in my family who had gone to college, let alone high school,” Cantil-Sakauye told about 60 students during a question and answer session in the Kealakehe High School library.
She and Mark Recktenwald, chief justice of the Hawaii Supreme Court, answered questions about their backgrounds, what drew them into the legal profession and what students should do if they are interested in a legal career, for about 90 minutes.
Cantil-Sakauye growing up, met a lawyer once, a Filipina lawyer speaking at a meeting. Cantil-Sakauye’s mother told her she could aspire to that. She revisited the idea while competing on a debate team in junior college, when she realized most of her competitors were planning to attend law school.
“I realized they were beatable,” she said. “If they were going to law school, so could I.”
The two chief justices, brought together by the Hawaii Board of Education for the conversation, which was broadcast live to all high schools in the state, encouraged students to develop diverse interests and hone their writing skills if they want to become lawyers.
Recktenwald recalled how his mother would make him redo his homework if the finished product wasn’t up to her standards. At the time, it annoyed him. But it served him well later, when he first tried a career in journalism, then went to law school.
“The ability to write is critical” because of all the writing lawyers must do, he said.
Cantil-Sakauye said every experience — from working as a waitress, which taught her how to deal with grumpy people, to dealing cards, which taught her how to read people — became a lesson she used when she entered the courtroom.
After the meeting with students, the two chief justices attended a lunch with West Hawaii Bar Association members. Hawaii’s judges are involved with their constituency, Cantil-Sakauye said.
“I am impressed by their connection to their community and their passion for improving it,” she said after the meeting. “Hawaii is a small community. Everyone is connected. There’s a great advantage and opportunity to knowing each other. It fosters understanding.”
In both Hawaii and California, justices are pressed with finding ways to make sure the public has access to the court system, Cantil-Sakauye said.
“Most Californians cannot afford a lawyer to take their case to court,” she said.
The state has addressed that issue by offering many forms and tutorials online in English and in Spanish, so people can file their own paperwork with the court. College students volunteer in courthouses to help people looking for filing and courtroom information, and recent law school graduates perform pro bono work, particularly in immigrant communities, providing legal information in immigrants’ native languages.
Recktenwald and Cantil-Sakauye both want to see more civics education in classrooms. Recktenwald said the state Judiciary is bringing the courtroom to the classroom, holding real court proceedings in schools. Students get information about the cases prior to the hearing, and have a chance to study applicable case law and make arguments in class. After one recent hearing, a student approached Recktenwald to let the chief justice know he had come up with the same questions about the case as some of the Supreme Court justices. That realization helped that student recognize that his own thoughts were insightful and had value, Recktenwald said.