The polite federal judge forcing the Trump administration to reunite separated immigrant families is a widely respected jurist who says he faced discrimination based on his Japanese heritage growing up in California.
Judge Dana Makoto Sabraw – his middle name means "truth" in Japanese – is a California native born to an American soldier who married a Japanese woman while stationed abroad during the Korean War.
Sabraw is the judge deciding the lawsuit brought by the ACLU against President Donald Trump's administration over the separation of migrant families during a zero-tolerance border crackdown. Lawyers who have argued cases before Sabraw say he generally gives government officials great deference, which is why his actions in the migrant separation case have stood out.
"Judge Sabraw is a guy who sees the government having an awesome amount of power and he expects them to exercise it responsibly," said former federal public defender Jeremy Warren. "He would never say this (but) everything he's done so far shows that he's been offended by the government's actions in this case."
Sabraw took the federal bench in the Southern District of California during a 2003 expansion of the judiciary under President George W. Bush as prosecutors battled a surge in narcotics cases. He was unanimously recommended for the position by the American Bar Association and drew bipartisan support during his brief Senate confirmation hearing.
In the hearing, senators welcomed his experience as a private attorney and state judge and said he would be a valuable member of the nation's third branch of government. Sabraw is married to the elected San Diego District Attorney, Summer Stephan, a Republican.
Sabraw on Tuesday asked the ACLU to prepare a proposal to punish the Trump administration for missing his deadline to reunite dozens of families split up by government agents who arrested them for illegally crossing the border. "These are firm deadlines," Sabraw said from the bench. "They’re not aspirational goals."
The Trump administration said it completed the first round of reunifications as of 7 a.m. ET Thursday, reuniting 57 children with their parents. Sabraw must decide if that was enough. The government was holding 103 children under 5 years old who were separated from their parents, but Department of Justice lawyers have been negotiating to carve out exceptions based on safety concerns. The ACLU asked Sabraw to consider forcing the Trump administration to pay for counseling for the separated families, along with any travel costs.
Sabraw is due to hold a hearing on the case at 4 p.m. ET Friday.
Sabraw is one of 17 federal district court judges assigned to San Diego, one of the nation's busiest federal courthouses. One of his colleagues has already tangled with Trump: Judge Gonzalo Curiel, who Trump said was unable to give a fair hearing on the president's border wall proposal because he is "a Mexican" and a "hater." Curiel, who was born in Indiana, later ruled in the president's favor.
During his 2003 Senate hearing, Sabraw was widely praised for his temperament and caseload management abilities, and colleagues said he's always impressed with his work ethic.
Charles Dick, who hired Sabraw as a young attorney in private practice in 1989, said colleagues always knew the now-federal judge was destined for success. That wasn't because he was a showy practitioner, but because he combined a strong work ethic with a keen analytical mind and steady temperament.
Dick, who admits to being slightly disappointed Sabraw followed several family members onto the bench, had planned to build the firm’s criminal practice around Sabraw after working with him for a few years. Among dozens of bright young lawyers, Sabraw stood out, Dick said.
“He had this first-rate ability to verbalize his thinking that was not only understandable but also convincing,” said Dick, who is now a mediator in private practice. “He’s also one of the most amiable, well-liked people I’ve met in my life.”
Dick, who still occasionally sees Sabraw socially, said his former colleague is a hunter who trains dogs, is close with his family and could be considered a true “traditionalist.” Dick said Sabraw is the rare judge who makes everyone who comes before him feel like they’ve been treated fairly, even if he’s handing down a stiff sentence.
“He isn’t going to procrastinate in making a decision ... and at the same time he makes a decision in a way that is fair and considerate to people who come before the bench,” Dick said. “You’ve got a judge who's sensitive to the humanity of the issues in front of him.”
The administration's zero-tolerance border policy prompted the separation of thousands of parents and children and drew international condemnation once the public began seeing photos of detained infants locked up without their families. The ACLU sued, arguing the forced separations are both inhumane and illegal.
While Sabraw doesn't typically discuss his Japanese heritage from the bench, he was a longtime member of several Asian-American organizations before he became a federal judge. And court watchers say he can't help but see the parallels between the Trump administration's handling of migrants and the Roosevelt administration's decision to round up and imprison American citizens of Japanese descent during World War II.
In a 2003 interview with the San Diego Union-Tribune, Sabraw said his parents struggled to find housing because of anti-Japanese prejudice in the United States during the 1960s.
"In light of that experience, I was raised with a great awareness of prejudice," Sabraw told the paper. "No doubt, there were times when I was growing up that I felt different, and hurtful things occurred because of my race."
Dick and Warren said Sabraw has never sought the spotlight, but has developed a reputation as a decisive judge who successfully combines humanity with authority.
“My guess he probably feels a little awkward that he’s the guy who got this case through the luck of the draw. He’s not one to seek the limelight,” Dick said. “He’s the kind of guy you’d want to sit down and have a cup of coffee with, and you’d walk away thinking, ‘well at least there’s one decent human being still.’”