California’s chief justice dropped Republican registration after Kavanaugh hearing

Chief Justice of California Tani Cantil-Sakauye, seen in 2017, has dropped her Republican party registration.
(David Butow / For The Times)

California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye said Friday she dropped her Republican Party registration after watching the confirmation hearing of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

“I was greatly disturbed by the hearing itself and the process,” the state’s top jurist and head of the Judicial Branch said in a telephone interview. “I say that not as a chief justice but as a female and a mother” of two young women.

Kavanaugh was accused of sexual misconduct, including what one woman described as an attempted rape in high school. Republican leadership moved swiftly to confirm him after a brief investigation into the accusations.


Cantil-Sakauye’s decision to register as no party preference, first reported by CALMatters, came after years of considering the move, she said.

Republican governors appointed her to all her judicial positions, from a trial court jurist to a court of appeal justice and finally, in 2010, to the top of the state’s highest court. She began her legal career as a prosecutor.

She has criticized the Trump administration in the past for “stalking” courthouses to find people who entered the country without authorization and Trump for attacking judges.

In the interview Friday, she noted that public discourse has become polarized and acrimonious and that she, as a woman and ethnic minority, had benefited from inclusive attitudes.

“I feel like I am a product of tremendous opportunity, and that came from inclusion,” said Cantil-Sakauye, 59.

Asked why she did not switch to the Democratic Party, she said, “I didn’t want to be labeled one way. …My values are more centrist.”


In other matters, Cantil-Sakauye said the court would do whatever possible to quickly review Gov. Jerry Brown’s final clemency requests — even if he asks for commutations for all death row prisoners.

Six former governors of other states called on Brown in an op-ed in the New York Times on Thursday to follow their examples and empty death row.

Few expect Brown to heed that call.

The California Constitution requires a majority of the California Supreme Court to consent to clemency requests for twice-convicted felons.

Brown has not yet submitted any requests for commutation of condemned inmates, and he leaves office early next month. California has about 740 inmates on death row, the largest in the nation.

Cantil-Sakauye said reviewing clemency requests for 740 inmates by Jan. 7 would be a “heavy lift” though she did not say it would be impossible.

The state high court established a more deferential standard this year for reviewing governors’ clemency recommendations.

Under the new standard, the court will consent to clemency requests unless it believes they involve an abuse of power.

Even with that lax standard, the court has rejected at least three of Brown’s requests.

Cantil-Sakauye also said she expects that Joshua Groban, Brown’s choice to to fill a vacancy on the California Supreme Court, will be “an interesting addition.”

“He brings executive-branch experience and a whole wealth of history and knowledge — background information for understanding some of the new laws we grapple with,” she said.

Groban, 45, a senior adviser to Brown who vetted judicial candidates, is expected to win unanimous approval next week by a three-member state commission headed by Cantil-Sakauye.

His appointment will give Democrats a majority on the state high court for the first time in decades.

Twitter: @mauradolan