Judge Who Ordered Reunification of Separated Families Promoted to Lead California Court

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. (Martin Panuco/U.S. District Court in the Southern District of California via AP)

SAN DIEGO (CN) — U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw — who ordered former President Donald Trump’s administration to reunite thousands of families it separated under the “zero tolerance” immigration policy at the U.S.-Mexico border — was promoted to Chief Judge of the Southern District of California Thursday.

In a virtual ceremony broadcast by the Federal Bar Association of San Diego via Zoom, Sabraw, a George W. Bush appointee, was “passed the gavel” from fellow Bush appointee former Chief Judge Larry Alan Burns, who served in the role for two years.

“Even though I won by a landslide, this is going to be a peaceful transition of power,” Burns joked, referencing bogus election fraud claims Trump made during the 2020 presidential election, as he handed Sabraw the wooden gavel Thursday night.

Serving as a federal judge since 2003 in the court covering San Diego and Imperial Counties, Sabraw has presided over several high-profile cases, including a lawsuit brought by parents and organizations challenging California’s vaccination law SB 277, which removed personal belief exemptions from vaccination requirements for school-age children.

In 2016, Sabraw declined to block the state from enforcing the law, which was spurred following the 2015 measles outbreak at Disneyland.

But Sabraw gained international recognition for his role presiding over the family separation litigation – Ms. L v. Immigration and Customs Enforcement – consolidated in the Southern District of California less than 20 miles from where the Trump administration, under its “zero tolerance” immigration policy, separated immigrant families seeking asylum.

In 2018, he ordered the federal government to reunite thousands of families separated at the U.S.-Mexico border, an effort he expanded a year later following an Office of Inspector General report that thousands more children were believed separated under a pilot program prior to the formal adoption of “zero tolerance.”

Recognizing the international significance of the case, Sabraw said in a phone interview with Courthouse News Thursday he chose, for the first time, to hold remote teleconference hearings where attorneys, reporters and members of the public could call-in and listen to important updates in the case.

Ms. L was different in that it received international attention and the media was very direct in its request to have some kind of access other than just showing up in person. It just made sense in that context and it worked so well,” Sabraw said.

“There were huge numbers of people who called in and it was completely silent and the only people you heard were the lawyers. I think we’re going to see more of that,” Sabraw said, calling remote court hearings “completely consistent with where we are in a modern world.”

Sabraw’s commitment to public access and ensuring immigrant families were reunited garnered local acclaim.

The San Diego Union-Tribune’s Editorial Board named him their “Person of the Year” in 2018 and the San Diego Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists named him as their 2020 Sunshine Award winner for facilitating public access to the important court hearings.

It turned out Sabraw’s open mindedness toward expanding court technology would be embraced by the entire Southern District court, which has held civil and criminal hearings, including sentencings and plea hearings, remotely during the duration of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Sabraw told Courthouse News the Southern District of California has a “huge backlog” of cases, including 400 defendants who want to enter guilty pleas in criminal cases. But he said “thanks to [Judge] Larry Burns I’ve inherited basically a well-oiled machine.”

“My perspective as chief would be a more high level one. I’m focused on the court as the Third Branch and how the court best serves its community in San Diego and El Centro. It requires collaboration, open communication with other branches of government, particularly the legislature, and maintaining relationships with the Executive and the Fourth Branch,” Sabraw said.

During the virtual ceremony, Sabraw thanked his wife, San Diego District Attorney Summer Stephan, and their three children for their support. He said daughter Kim recently passed the bar exam and had joined a local law firm.

“I will, as Judge Burns has, devote myself 100%, always doing what’s best, always doing what’s right,” Sabraw said.

“It’s the honor of a lifetime.”

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