There are few judges who can speak Spanish (and a little Japanese), grow crops and drain a three-point shot. But 225th District Judge Peter Sakai of San Antonio can do all those things and more.
The son of first-generation Japanese-Americans, Sakai grew up on a farm in the Rio Grande Valley near the Texas-Mexico border where Hispanic culture flourishes.
“I would say that my life was very interesting and had a lot of challenges. . . . I was a minority among minorities,” Sakai says. “I grew up in a Hispanic culture, which I truly embraced. But at the same time my parents and my grandparents showed appreciation for the Japanese culture. So I truly embraced diversity.”
Sakai learned about the Japanese-American experience from his father, Pete Sakai. During World War II, Pete Sakai was sent to an internment camp for Japanese-Americans in the desert town of Poston, Ariz. In 1971, when Peter Sakai was 17 years old, his father took him to Poston to visit the internment camp. A monument stood where the camp once was.
“That was one of the life experiences he shared with me as he got older and made sure that I understood the experience that he went through as a teenager and young man,” Sakai says. “It truly affected me in the sense that it made me sensitive to civil rights and due process.”
Pete Sakai joined the U.S. Army to get out of the internment camp; he became a translator as part of the U.S. occupation force in Japan after the country’s surrender in 1945.
Pete Sakai moved to South Texas after the war, married, and raised his family on a farm where they grew vegetables, grain and cotton. As a child, Peter Sakai worked on the farm — a difficult job that inspired him to go to law school.
“I am very knowledgeable of farm work and how to grow crops. And that’s why I became a lawyer and a now judge, because I had no desire to return to the farm,” Sakai says. “It is truly God’s work.”
Sakai earned his undergraduate degree in political science from the University of Texas in 1976 and his law degree from the UT School of Law in 1979.
Sakai became a Bexar County assistant district attorney then left to open a solo practice. In 1987, Tom Rickhoff, then judge of the 289th District Court, hired Sakai as a juvenile referee for Rickhoff’s court. In 1995, Sakai was hired as an associate judge for what is known in San Antonio as The Children’s Court, which handles child abuse and neglect cases exclusively.
Sakai won election to the 225th District Court and took the bench in 2006. He says he will seek re-election in 2010.
For recreation, Sakai plays basketball. He says he occasionally faces off in pickup games against U.S. District Judge Fred Biery of San Antonio. “But he is a gym rat. I am not,” Sakai says of Biery. “Fred Biery is still a point guard. I am a power forward-type.”
Texas Lawyer senior reporter John Council e-mailed Sakai some questions. Here are his answers, edited for style and length.
Judge Peter Sakai
225th District Court
Texas Lawyer: What do lawyers do in your courtroom that drives you absolutely insane, beyond the normal not being prepared for a hearing, showing up late or arguing with each other?
Judge Peter Sakai: Nothing really drives me absolutely insane. Having heard the toughest cases of child abuse and neglect for 11 years, there really isn’t anything that lawyers do that upsets me. This is a tough job. Why would I want to make it any harder?
TL: Are there any peculiarities about the way you run your courtroom that lawyers should know before darkening your door?
Sakai: I am not peculiar. Just be prepared, make intelligent statements and [get] to the point.
TL: What was the transition like going from an associate judge position to a full-blown district court judge?
Sakai: I really enjoy and appreciate my full-blown district court job, but on behalf of my fellow associate judges, they earn their pay for their partly blown district court job. The administrative part of my job can be a bummer, though.
TL: What aspect of your job makes you uncomfortable?
Sakai: The campaigning and asking for campaign contributions from attorneys is the hardest part of the job.
TL: If there is one thing a lawyer should know about how you run a trial, what would that be?
Sakai: Always tell me the truth, or face the consequences.
TL: Tell us about a courtroom moment where you thought, “Wow, I never thought I’d see that happen.”
Sakai: An experienced trial litigator in the midst of a grilling cross-examination of the adversary party collapsed in the courtroom to the floor unconscious. The adversary party immediately jumped out of the witness box to do CPR. I thought that the attorney had died of a heart attack in the courtroom and that the adversary party had brought him back to life. I was convinced that it was divine providence in the 225th District Court, but it was only a temporary blackout.
TL: What kind of case is your least favorite to hear and why?
Sakai: In Bexar County with our Presiding District Court rotation system, hearing cases is like a box of chocolate — you don’t know if you will like it until you bite into it, then it is too late. You’ve got to hear it whether you like it or not.
TL: Have you ever had a day on the bench where you thought, “Man, I’d really rather be picking vegetables on a South Texas farm right now.”
Sakai: Never. I promise that you will never hear me utter those words. My father was my boss. Enough said.
TL: You’ve had some firsthand experience with diversity. Is that ever important in the context of your courtroom?
Sakai: I am not making any “wise Asian” comments whatsoever. I might want to be a federal judge one of these days.
TL: What’s the coolest thing about being Japanese-American?
Sakai: I grew up on values of hard work, honesty and humility from my parents, both of whom are Japanese-American and were taught their values from their parents, my grandparents who immigrated from Japan. I might not have thought that was “cool” when I was growing up, but I hope that my children figure it out for their own lives. That is the wish of any parent for their children.
“Approach the Bench” is a periodic column in Texas Lawyer.