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Judge, Calm In Court, Takes Hard Line On Splitting Families

This July 17, 2018 photo provided by the U.S. District Court in the Southern District of California shows Judge Dana Sabraw in San Diego.
U.S. District Court in the Southern District of California via AP
This July 17, 2018 photo provided by the U.S. District Court in the Southern District of California shows Judge Dana Sabraw in San Diego.
Judge, Calm In Court, Takes Hard Line On Splitting Families
Judge, Calm In Court, Takes Hard Line On Splitting Families GUEST: Elliot Spagat, San Diego correspondent, Associated Press

Our top story on Midday edition. San Diego federal Judge Dana sobre is expected to hold another hearing tomorrow about the ongoing legal issues surrounding the Trump administration's family separations at the border. Sabras rulings demanding the Government reunite families within tight deadlines has drawn national attention. But new reporting finds that the strong stance. Judge sobre has taken evolved during the hearings as sobre apparently became increasingly disturbed by the government's approach to zero tolerance and family separations. Joining me is Elliot spagetti San Diego correspondent for The Associated Press. Elliot Welcome to the program. Hi Maureen. Good to be here. You begin your profile of sobre by saying the judge initially appeared conflicted about whether to stop the Trump administration from separating families. But that changed over time. Can you describe that evolution. That's my reading of it. I have attended every hearing except for one which was in late June but I attended the first hearing which was on May 4th in which lasted about 90 minutes. And I had a hard time coming out of it and I asked a few people who were who were there. Well where do you think he's going to come down. And they they didn't know he seemed really torn between on the one hand you know sympathizing with the ACLU which was representing that which represents the families. And you know these people are being deprived of their constitutional rights to due process their families are being they are being torn apart without without so much as a hearing. And then on the other hand a reluctance that you find in a lot of judges to get involved in kind of the nitty gritty of immigration enforcement. And one quote I used was you know exactly that is do I want to get involved and you know do I want to issue such a blanket overarching order when and when many of these decisions are individual. And then of course three days later turny general steps Jeff Sessions came to San Diego and announced the zero tolerance policy which was in full effect which means that families that crossed illegally with their children were separated and about 23 hundred children were separated over the next five weeks so that was a dramatic change of circumstances. And that's I think when we saw his thinking evolve. Now remind us how Judge sobre became a central figure in the story of family separation. As you say it really started even before the zero tolerance policy was announced. It started in March the ACLU sued on behalf of a Congolese woman who crossed the San Ysidro port of entry last year and claimed asylum. The immigration authorities doubted her parentage and it took I think about eight months for a DNA test to be completed. It turns out she was the parent that was also suing on behalf of a Brazilian woman who crossed in New Mexico Arizona. She she up and across illegally did about a month in jail and was reunited with her or her child I think also about eight months later so a long long period of time. And so it was the lawsuit was on behalf of these two mothers at a time when people were family separation was definitely on the radar. People were paying attention but it really didn't explode until as I mentioned in May when this zero tolerance policy took effect. Now Eliot you go into Judge sabras background in your profile and you find that he has personal experience with discrimination. Can you tell us about that. His father was stationed in Japan during the Korean War and met his wife there and he was born in the San Francisco area grew up in SAC in Sacramento and he he told the North County Times back in 2003 which the year he was appointed to the federal bench that he had experience personal personally experienced prejudiced in his growing up in needs. He spoke specifically about the search for housing there when he was growing up in the Sacramento area in California and said that it affected him. It still does. What did you find out about how Judge Subrata is regarded. What is his usual demeanor when he's hearing cases. Well you know almost anybody and it struck me when I first heard him talk was wow this is a soothing voice a calm voice somebody who doesn't raise his voice and I found a quote that just backed it up perfectly. It was a quote from the that he gave to the Daily Journal a legal publication in Los Angeles where he says if I have to raise my voice I've lost control and I've never heard him raise his voice. He has he has gotten what you would say angry at least his patience worth then at points during that during the during this proceedings. But he's never raised his voice and that's what almost to a person what people will say about him that he's very calm and measured and fair and very very courteous despite despite the high stakes and emotions involved certainly in this case. Now access to judges especially in the middle of a big case like this one is nonexistent. Can you explain how you were able to build this profile of Judge sobre unfortunately. He's got a very sick record. He's he's been on the bench for 1995 was appointed the state state court and then as I say he's got 15 15 years of a judicial record. And then you know during that process of course he's given a number of interviews. I mentioned the Daily Journal. He spoke to the Federal Bar Association magazine back in 2009 for a profile and that was revealing because it talked to me at one of them were more revealing parts was when you talked about family and how important that is to him. Obviously family is the heart of this case. He's married to summer and the recently elected San Diego County district attorney they have three teenage. They were teenagers at the time. This profile in 2009. Now they're grown. But he talked about how important family was him so it was relying on his record and also what previous people have journalists have spoken with him. I've been speaking with Elliott Baggot San Diego correspondent for The Associated Press and Elliott thank you so much. Thank you.

U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw appeared conflicted in early May on whether to stop families from being separated at the border. He challenged the Trump administration to explain how families were getting a fair hearing guaranteed by the Constitution, but also expressed reluctance to get too deeply involved with immigration enforcement.

"There are so many (enforcement) decisions that have to be made, and each one is individual," he said in his calm, almost monotone voice. "How can the court issue such a blanket, overarching order telling the attorney general, either release or detain (families) together?"

Sabraw showed how more than seven weeks later in a blistering opinion faulting the administration and its "zero tolerance" policy for a "crisis" of its own making. He went well beyond the American Civil Liberties Union's initial request to halt family separation — which President Donald Trump effectively did on his own amid a backlash — by imposing a deadline of this Thursday to reunify more than 2,500 children with their families.

RELATED: San Diego Federal Judge Says "Great Progress" Made In Reuniting Families Separated At Border

Unyielding insistence on meeting his deadline, displayed in a string of hearings he ordered for updates, has made the San Diego jurist a central figure in a drama that has captivated international audiences with emotional accounts of toddlers and teens being torn from their parents.

Circumstances changed dramatically after the ACLU sued the government in March on behalf of a Congolese woman and a Brazilian woman who were split from their children. Three days after the May hearing, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the zero tolerance policy on illegal entry was in full effect, leading to the separation of more than 2,300 children in five weeks.

Sabraw, writing in early June that the case could move forward, found the practice "arbitrarily tears at the sacred bond between parent and child." It was "brutal, offensive, and fails to comport with traditional notions of fair play and decency."

David Martin, professor emeritus at the University of Virginia School of Law, said, "It's probably not the first judge who seemed more deferential and then got much more active when he or she thought the government was not being responsive or had taken a particularly objectionable stance. Childhood separation clearly had that kind of resonance."

"The intrusion into the family is so severe, the judicial reaction has been just like much of the public's reaction: 'This is an extraordinary step, you shouldn't have done it, you better fix it as quickly as possible,'" said Martin, a Homeland Security Department deputy general counsel under President Barack Obama.

Sabraw, 60, was born in San Rafael, near San Francisco, and raised in the Sacramento area. His father was stationed in Japan during the Korean War, where he met his mother.

The judge has said prejudice against Japanese growing up made their housing search difficult.

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

While studying at University of the Pacific's McGeorge School of Law, he met his wife, Summer Stephan, who was elected San Diego County district attorney in June. He told the Federal Bar Association magazine in 2009 that his wife and three children, then teenagers, kept him "running from one activity to another, and grounded in all that is good and wonderful in life."

Republican President George W. Bush appointed Sabraw to the federal bench in 2003 after eight years as a state judge. By virtue of serving in San Diego, his caseload is heavy with immigration and other border-related crimes.

In 2010, he oversaw a settlement with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission over allegations that San Diego officials misled investors about city pension liabilities. In 2014, he favored Apple Inc. in a closely watched patent infringement case against the tech behemoth. In 2016, he sided with the state of California in refusing to block a law requiring school vaccinations.

Robert Carreido, a criminal defense attorney who estimates having 20 to 30 cases before the judge, was a little surprised how hard Sabraw came down on separating families because he hews pretty closely to the government's sentencing recommendations.

"He rarely will go above what we've negotiated (in plea agreements), but he doesn't usually go much lower than what the government recommends," Carreido said. "In my experience, I would consider him in the middle."

RELATED: More Than 300 Older Children Split At Border Are Reunited

Sabraw's reputation for a calm, courteous demeanor and running an efficient calendar has been clear in his highest-profile case so far. He has kept hearings to about 90 minutes, telling attorneys he doesn't want to get too "in the weeds" on logistics of reunifying families.

"My general view is if the court has to raise its voice, or threaten sanction, then we've lost control," Sabraw told the Daily Journal, a Los Angeles legal publication, last year. "I never want to be in that position. Usually, almost always, court is almost like a place of worship."

His patience wore thin one Friday afternoon when the government submitted a plan to reunite children 5 and older that excluded DNA testing and other measures. The government said "truncated" vetting was needed to meet Sabraw's deadline, despite considerable risk to child safety.

The judge quickly summoned both sides to a conference call at 5:30 p.m. to say the plan misrepresented his instructions and was designed to pin blame on him if anything went wrong.

The government, which never showed serious consideration of an appeal, submitted a revised plan two days later that restored DNA testing if red flags arose. Jonathan White, a senior Health and Human Services Department official and the plan's architect, authoritatively answered questions in court the next day, prompting the judge to tell him he had "every confidence that you are the right person to do this."

The revised plan, he said, was a "great start to making a large number of reunifications happen very, very quickly."