Tani Cantil-Sakauye Sacramento Family Court Alumnus Earns Worst Supreme Court Opinion Runner-Up Title
A California Supreme Court opinion authored by former Sacramento Family Court Judge Tani Gorre Cantil-Sakauyewas called the second-worst opinion of the 96 rulings issued over the high court’s 2012-2013 term, according to an annual review published in the August issue of California Lawyer. Cantil-Sakauye was appointed to theSacramento Municipal Court by Governor George Deukmejian in 1990, and elevated to the superior court in 1997 by Governor Pete Wilson. That same year, she established and presided over the first court in Sacramento dedicated solely to domestic violence issues. She was elevated to the 3rd District Court of Appeal in 2005, and in 2010 nominated to be Chief Justice of the state’s highest court byGovernor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Cantil-Sakauye was sworn into office as Chief Justice of California on January 3, 2011.
In an annual review of California Supreme Court opinions, Gerald Uelmen, a Santa Clara University Law Professor and Director of the Edwin A. Heafey Jr. Center for Trial and Appellate Advocacy at the university singled out Cantil-Sakauye’s opinion in People v. Aranda as nearly the worst of the 2012-2013 decisions.
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“A close runner-up for worst opinion of the year was Chief Cantil-Sakauye’s majority opinion in People v. Aranda (55 Cal. 4th 342 (2012)). In this case there was no question that the trial court erred in failing to instruct the jury on reasonable doubt. But Cantil-Sakauye confidently concluded that it was harmless error because ‘there was no reasonable probability that the outcome’ would have been different had the instruction been given. Yet both Justices Kennard and Liu dissented because they were not convinced, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the jury in the case applied the correct standard of proof,“ Uelmen pointed out.
“If two justices on the state Supreme Court have a reasonable doubt, how can a majority of that court confidently conclude that a reasonable juror would not? In general, I’m suspicious of ‘harmless error’ findings that are not unanimous. As Justice Liu noted in his dissent, ‘Until today, no California case had ever held or even suggested that despite a trial court’s failure to instruct the jury with a standard reasonable doubt instruction … an appellate court can still be certain beyond a reasonable doubt that the jury understood its obligation.'”
Uelmen’s selection for worst opinion of the year, In re Richards, was authored by Justice Joyce L. Kennard, who also was appointed to the bench by Governor George Deukmejian. Both Cantil-Sakauye and Kennard have backgrounds in law enforcement. Before becoming a judge, Kennard spent time as a deputy attorney general in Los Angeles, while Cantil-Sakauye is a former Sacramento County deputy district attorney. The Chief Justice’s opinion in People v. Aranda will make it more difficult for criminal defendants who allege they were wrongfully convicted to challenge their convictions.