When My Daughters Should Break the Rules


*This is an excerpt from What I Told My Daughter, edited by Nina Tassler with Cynthia Littleton, out now.*

By Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye

Moms and judges have a lot in common. We recognize that clear, bright-line rules must be adhered to. But we also recognize that some rules lack precision. And sometimes there aren’t any rules. In either case, we bring our training, our experience, our reason, and our intuition to help us illuminate the path forward.

Take Heelys, for instance.

If you observed children in the mid-2000s, then you know these sneakers with retractable wheels were all the rage. My two quiet, shy daughters would transform into spirit beings when flying around in their Heelys. Once, we were shopping in a big box store with expansive concrete flooring and I gave them the nod to take off.

As they carefully wheeled near me, other shoppers and store employees smiled and asked where they could buy a pair for their children and grandchildren. The girls grew bolder and left my side, wheeling ahead of me and behind me. Soon, however, they returned to my side, upset and scared, near tears, with  wheels retracted.

“What’s wrong,” I asked. They told me that a store lady had yelled at them. They were confused because earlier other employees smiled at them.

I huddled with them in an aisle. I said that the rules seemed unclear. And when the rules are not clear, it can be confusing, and as far as I could tell, I wasn’t even sure the mean lady was right about the rule anyway. I told my girls that they didn’t mean to break any rules and that they shouldn’t be scared or

shamed about using their Heelys. The yelling was wrong, I said, and hurtful. I suspected the clerk was wrong and even if she wasn’t, I wanted her to try to yell at my children when they were with me. I encouraged them to wheel around the store with me. I wanted to draw out the mean lady. Very, very reluctantly and with much worry and uncertainty, my daughters used their Heelys once again, drawing not yells but smiles, once again, from onlookers and store employees.

Many years later, my daughters still talk about this incident. They remember their timidity and their confusion. They remember they tested the rules and shed their shame. They remember leaving the store feeling triumphant.

Of course, sometimes the rules are clear. But even when they are, they can be followed strategically. Take basketball, for instance.

When they were younger, my daughters were tall for their ages and played center positions. They were scratched, stepped on, shoved, elbowed in the ribs, and occasionally knocked down. Of all the basketball rules, I taught my girls, the most important one is this: You get four fouls; on the fifth foul you are taken out of the game. Rules are meant to encourage appropriate behavior and if that doesn’t work, then the rules are meant to punish poor behavior. In a rough game, I told my daughters, when you are getting kicked around and the referees are asleep at the whistle, then use four of your fouls. I’ll keep track of them, I told them. Use the rules to your advantage; don’t waste opportunities. They didn’t.

Finally, some things should never have rules. Like career paths. When I became the Chief Justice of California in 2011, both young and seasoned lawyers wondered what kind of calculated path I followed to become the first ethnic minority and second female to hold the position of chief justice in the state.

Truth be told, I didn’t have a plan. But along the way, I met lawyers who saw the future of the bench and bar as something other than patrilineal institutions. I am a beneficiary of time and circumstance—and of male and female lawyers and judges—who saw the future and me in it.

After law school and the bar exam in 1984, my only plan was to get a job. With no leads, no connections, and no holds barred, I applied everywhere.

When a temporary opening at the district attorney’s office was offered to me, I sincerely knew I wanted to be a deputy district attorney—whatever the job entailed. And where exactly was the courthouse again? Little did I know that as a prosecutor I would fulfill a lifelong dream: engaging in merit-based arguments and getting to have the last word. It was a dream come true for a well-mannered, Filipina youngest child with two big dominant brothers. I threw myself into trial work with such relish that I bemoaned the weekends when court was closed. Trial preparation and trial work gave me the confidence I needed, the experience I lacked, and the resilience to interpret the word  “no” as “find another way.”

Working as a deputy district attorney and participating in supportive bar organizations, I came to believe that anything was possible. I ignored advice that I couldn’t get a job in the governor’s office because I didn’t have government law experience. I didn’t calculate my odds. When I did get the job, I

immersed myself in the work of the executive and legislative branches. I was appointed to the bench when I was thirty years old. I have been appointed to four levels of the bench by three different governors. I accepted each appointment thinking it would be my last.

During my trial court tenure, I became a wife and a mother. For a few years I put the legal community on hold and went deep undercover into nursery school, Brownie troops, basketball, and gymnastics. I let everyone know that I was putting family first and they should too. Although I knew my résumé would no longer look like a male judge’s résumé, I look back on those years with unbridled joy. In each new position, I was sorry to let the last position go.

As I reflect on my path, I’m able to offer some very simple career advice to my college-age daughters: Ignore the rules of the common career trajectory. Work hard. Maintain a good attitude. Serve the public—and never forget to follow your inner Heelys.

*Tani Gorre Cantil-Sakauye is the 28th Chief Justice of the State of California, and is the first Filipina American and the second woman to serve in that role. As leader of California’s judicial branch of government and chair of the judicial council, she has been focused on improving the public’s access to justice, increasing efficiency, transparency, and accountability, and revitalizing civic learning and engagement.*

*Copyright © 2016 by Jerry Levine, Inc. from WHAT I TOLD MY DAUGHTER by Nina Tassler with Cynthia Littleton published by Atria Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.*