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The federal judge who took on Trump's family separation policy not afraid to make waves

The federal judge who took on Trump's family separation policy not afraid to make waves
Dana Sabraw (Courtesy of Southern District of California)

Whether it’s hardened criminals or bickering corporations appearing before him in Courtroom 13A in San Diego, U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw asks thoughtful questions, listens attentively to both sides and metes out justice in his characteristically soothing voice.

Even his sharp words come out measured and respectful.

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That same serenity has prevailed as the highly charged drama surrounding the Trump administration’s practice of separating families at the border has unfolded in his courtroom in recent weeks, and the judge has suddenly found himself in the national spotlight.

After calling the separations “brutal” and “offensive,” the judge ordered the government to stop separating families caught at the border for now and to reunite the 2,500 children already apart — and to do it in a month.

The case is a reminder that his soft-spoken demeanor shouldn’t be mistaken for being soft.

He has taken an increasingly active role overseeing the government’s progress in making the reunifications happen by the July 26 deadline. And he didn’t parse words recently when a Department of Health and Human Services official appeared to try to shift blame to the judge for a reunification process that the government viewed as less than ideal and potentially put children in danger.

Sabraw said the official’s declaration was “nothing but cover for HHS.”

“It portrays a very grudging reluctance to do things. And then ultimately it says, we are doing a truncated procedure, and if anything goes wrong it is on the court,” Sabraw scolded the government attorneys, according to the transcript.

“That’s the message, and it is not appreciated, and the government can do a lot better,” he said.

Sabraw, appointed to the federal bench by Republican President George W. Bush, declined to be interviewed for this story. But several attorneys and judges described a jurist who is affable, evenhanded and not afraid of complex legal problems.

“A hallmark of Judge Sabraw’s courtroom is his deep appreciation for decorum and civility,” said defense attorney Ellis Johnston III, who has frequently argued in front of him. “Both parties and their counsel can expect to be treated with upmost respect when they’re before him. He’s about as even-keeled as they come; I’ve never seen him lose his temper once in the 15 years I have appeared before him.”

San Diego County Superior Court Judge Joan Weber saw that when she served with Sabraw in the Vista courthouse.

“Judge Sabraw is brilliant, has excellent judicial temperament, lawyers love being in his courtroom. He’s a gentleman to every person who walks into his courtroom,” Weber said. “I believe that’s because he’s such a quality human being.”

Sabraw’s father was a young Army soldier serving in the Korean War when he met the love of his life in Japan.

The newlyweds moved to California, where Sabraw was born. His middle name, “Makoto,” translates to “truth” in Japanese.

But it wasn’t easy being a mixed-race couple in the U.S. after the war, and prejudice against people of Japanese ancestry at the time made it hard for his parents to find housing.

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“In light of that experience, I was raised with a great awareness of prejudice,” Sabraw told a North County Times reporter in a 2003 interview. “No doubt, there were times when I was growing up that I felt different, and hurtful things occurred because of my race.”

Still, Sabraw enjoyed what he has described as an idyllic childhood growing up with his two siblings in Carmichael, a small suburb of Sacramento. His father taught special needs children and his mother taught English as a second language. His parents never raised their voices.

His work experience as a youth was varied: restaurant busboy, delivery truck driver, lifeguard, house painter, cashier and wrestling coach, according to a profile by the Federal Bar Assn.

He attended San Diego State University, then University of the Pacific McGeorge School of Law, where he finished in the top 10% of his class.

It was near the end of law school that he met his future wife — and San Diego County’s future district attorney — Summer Stephan. She was running for student body president and going class to class with her campaign speech when Sabraw encountered her. He was impressed — and smitten.

He asked a mutual friend, Deborah Bain, to introduce him.

“They both have similar characteristics — both are very outgoing, intelligent, gracious and kind,” Bain said. “I thought they’d be a good match.”

Bain said their connection was “instant.”

“It was beautiful. It was lovely how they clicked,” recalled Bain, who works as the special counsel for victims rights and services at the state attorney general’s office.

Sabraw proposed five months after they began dating.

Out of law school, Sabraw was hired at Price, Postel & Parma in Santa Barbara, a buttoned-up, traditional law firm said to the oldest west of the Mississippi. But his new wife, who badly wanted to be a prosecutor, didn’t have many opportunities in the sleepy hamlet.

The couple moved to San Diego, where Stephan has family, and she joined the San Diego County district attorney’s office, which she now leads nearly 30 years later from her office across the street from her husband’s chambers.

As for Sabraw, a friend got him an interview at Baker & McKenzie, an international business law firm at one time considered the largest in the world.

Charles Dick, then the managing partner for the San Diego office, still remembers his first impression.

“He was one of those rare individuals who immediately leaves you with an extremely warm feeling and intuitive notion that he would fit in and be a wonderful team player,” Dick recalled.

Sabraw did not disappoint.

“What became pretty obvious in short order was his extreme capacity for doing legal work and analyzing problems.”

As a young associate Sabraw won over the senior attorneys with his capabilities and pleasant disposition, Dick said, eventually rising to partner.

“He was one of the people we anticipated we were going to build our future around in a sense. Then he came to us with his burning desire to become a judge to follow in his family’s footsteps,” Dick said. “How do you say no to something like that?”

Sabraw had always admired his uncle, M.O. Sabraw, an Alameda County Superior Court judge who rose to the California Court of Appeal. His uncle’s wife, Bonnie Sabraw, was also on the Alameda County bench, as was his uncle’s son, Ronald Sabraw.

Dana Sabraw continued the legacy when Gov. Pete Wilson appointed him to the North County Municipal Court in 1995, then to the San Diego County Superior Court in 1998.

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In the meantime, he and Stephan were raising a son and twin daughters. Sabraw still found time to coach Little League baseball.

An avid outdoorsman, he also trains hunting dogs and is known to disappear in the wilds of Montana or other backcountry outposts for long outings.

In 2003, Sabraw was appointed to one of five newly created seats on the Southern District of California’s federal court bench — the nation’s busiest district at the time.

“I remember being at his swearing in for the federal bench, and there was not a dry eye in the house. His dad was very ill at the time,” said Judge Weber.

“His parents were so proud,” she recalled. “A lot of family pride and public service. It’s built into the Sabraw family.”

As a federal judge, Sabraw handles the typical array of cases, from civil disputes to illegal border crossings to drug trafficking to public corruption to white-collar fraud. He has been assigned several high-profile cases involving leaders of the Sinaloa drug cartel, including Serafin Zambada Ortiz, who is a son of the organization’s co-leader, Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, as well as cartel assassin Jose “Antrax” Arechiga Gamboa.

He is overseeing a lawsuit against San Diego police on accusations that the department wrongly blamed one of its own criminologists for the notorious 1984 murder of a teen girl on Torrey Pines State Beach. Other cases have included a legal challenge to the state’s vaccination requirement, an attempt by medical marijuana collectives to halt federal crackdowns, a long-running inquiry into San Diego’s pension debacle and a battle over disgraced Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham’s Rancho Santa Fe home.

“He is not one to make snap decisions,” said California Supreme Court Justice Ming Chin, who became close friends with Sabraw after being introduced by Sabraw’s uncle. “He is one who considers everything, listens to everyone, then makes a careful, reasoned decision.”

What you see on the bench is what you get off the bench.

“He doesn’t suddenly become this bigger than life figure when he takes the bench,” Chin said. “He’s still Dana Sabraw. That makes him approachable. He’s able to maintain control over his courtroom, not dictatorial control.”

“You can disagree with him,” Chin added, “and it’s never disagreeable.”

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