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Sakai quits Children’s Court, seeks 225th District Court seat

Standing at a podium last Wednesday morning, Judge Peter Sakai waited for the Brackenridge Eagle train to round a curve and slow to a stop before launching his campaign for the 225th District Court.

Sakai told the gathering that he purposely chose Brackenridge Park and the train depot to make his announcement. “This is a place that means much to me,” said the judge, who hails from the Rio Grande Valley. “This is the place where as I grew up, we came here on vacation and rode that train.”

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Judge Peter Sakai’s face displays a range of emotions as he discusses his 11-year career as the county’s first children’s court judge, charged with presiding over countless cases of child abuse, neglect, and termination of parental rights, as well as adoptions. Sakai is campaigning to win the 225th District Court seat that will be left vacant by Judge John Specia when he retires next year. (Photos by Mark Greenberg)

The crowd cheered him on, and some of his political friends were there to laud Sakai, who as associate judge in the Bexar County Children’s Court for the past 11 years has presided over countless cases of abused and neglected children.

“His calling is not just to serve us, he is a good lawyer,” said State Senator Leticia Van de Putte. “This is a man with 26 years of legal experience, and we need a good judge in this system; he has maintained an atmosphere that puts children first.”

Sakai said he has come full circle as the county’s first children’s court judge, and is stepping down at the behest of his peers so he can seek a higher office, that of 225th District Court Judge John Specia, who is retiring next fall after the election.

“I’ve chosen to take a new path,” Sakai explained. Specia’s court not only handles divorce and other family law matters, but also oversees the two children’s courts and conducts a weekly session aimed at parents with substance-abuse problems who have lost custody of their children.

The next day, more than 100 courthouse judges, attorneys, children’s court staff, and county employees crowded into the Justice Center’s central jury room for a plate of barbeque and to say farewell to Sakai.

“He is the hardest working judge in the courthouse,” Judge Lori Massey informed the crowd. Over the past 11 years, Sakai has heard 15 to 20 child-custody cases and other matters each day he presided.

Judge Martha Tanner explained why senior judges at the courthouse moved so quickly to replace Sakai with Associate Judge Carlos Montemayor. “We’re going to miss him so much. We were afraid we would have to do your dockets.”

Judge Andy Mireles spoke of a time when there were no children’s courts or child-support courts. “When the children’s court was founded, when it was outlined how the system would work in consistently dispensing justice in the interest of children, we thought about Peter Sakai. Without a doubt he was the right person at the right time to do this job. We can’t endorse anybody, we love him very much.”

Sakai left his family’s Valley farm in the 1970s to earn a law degree from the University of Texas in 1979. He has 26 years of public and private practice as a lawyer. That includes a stint as an assistant criminal district attorney in the appellate section, and as assistant DA and chief of the juvenile section after graduating from UT-Austin. Sakai opened a civil and criminal law office from 1983 to 1994 before taking on the judgeship in children’s court.

During his tenure, there was a 1,000 percent increase in the number of Bexar County children adopted by foster parents or reunited with parents who were formerly unable to care for their children. In the past 10 years, the children’s court of Bexar County has been nationally recognized for its success in solving child neglect and abuse cases.

That success was dampened last year when Diamond Washington died at the hands of her mother. Sakai took a one-week sabbatical to “regain the focus and passion to hear the child-abuse and neglect cases in the children’s court.

“I want all of you to know that I came back a stronger and even more passionate judge for our children and families most in need,” he said in a farewell message to Bexar County residents.

Sakai said he expects strong opposition to his campaign as a Democrat for the 225th District Court bench. “It will be a tough primary fight, and a tough fight in the fall, but there will be many contested judicial races between both Republicans and Democrats; it is the nature of the times and the political season.”

But, Sakai contended, Republicans and Democrats are planning to help him get elected. “They will look beyond the partisanship because of my commitment to families and children.”

By Michael Cary

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