"And you know that's quite frankly — well, some of it is budget-driven. I mean, are attorneys paid enough to look at these? What's going on?"
As a Superior Court judge in Sacramento, she never presided over a death penalty trial, and capital case appeals in California go directly from trial courts to the Supreme Court.
She said her rulings during nearly five years as an appeals court judge showed common sense, and she listed several that gave her pride. Analysts who read them said they were fair and thorough, with little writing flair and no evidence of her personal views.
Gerald Uelmen, a Santa Clara University law professor, said they showed she was "open." Told of her remarks on the death penalty and initiative process, he said it was "somewhat alarming" that she was not more conversant on the issues.
"There is going to be a steep learning curve," he said. Uelmen was executive director of the commission that studied the death penalty.
One of the rulings she cited with pride overturned several counts in a criminal case. The other permitted a school district to lay off a teacher who had more seniority than some who were retained.
Vikram Amar, a UC Davis law professor, said her rulings show that her judicial skills are "more than competent," that her thinking is clear and that she is willing to "rule in favor of the less popular party when she thinks the law so requires.
"Both opinions show an independent, indeed courageous, judicial mind," he said.
Asked about regrets, Cantil-Sakauye recalled one "idiotic mistake" when she served on the Sacramento Superior Court and refused counsel to a defendant who kept threatening to kill his lawyers and battered one of them in her courtroom. She said the man could "turn like a rabid cougar." The appeals court overturned her decision.
She said she became a Republican at age 19 when one of her friends headed the Young Republicans. "I like George Deukmejian," said Cantil-Sakauye, who worked as his deputy legislative and legal secretary. "He was law and order. I appreciated that."
She singled out O'Connor, a moderate Republican who became the first woman to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court, as a jurist she particularly admired, in part because she was a woman who faced hurdles in the legal world, persevered and "raised a family." In law school, she and friends created a basketball team and called themselves the "Justice O" team, she said.
After law school, Cantil-Sakauye said, she applied for a job in the San Francisco public defender's office but was told she was too "young-looking." She then applied and was hired by the Sacramento district attorney's office. Then she became a trial judge and ultimately moved to the appeals court.
Cantil-Sakauye lives in Sacramento with her husband — 49-year-old Mark Sakauye, a Sacramento police lieutenant — and two daughters, aged 14 and 11. She said she plans to rent an apartment in San Francisco, where the court and the judicial branch administrative office are situated, and work in Sacramento on Fridays.
With her husband retiring in September, the family may eventually move to San Francisco, she said.
Cantil-Sakauye said she knows she faces a "huge learning curve" and believes her colleagues on the court, some of whom were passed over for chief justice, will be supportive. She said the loves "the chaos" of too much work and believes she will master the job.
"I'm comfortable where I've been and I'm comfortable where I am," she said. "And I've loved every step of it."