"Three Pillars" in the Life of United States District Judge Dana M. Sabraw

Updated: Feb 22

Moana McMullan*

U.S. District Judge Dana M. Sabraw
U.S. District Judge Dana M. Sabraw

On January 22, 2021, Dana Makoto Sabraw will become the next Chief Judge of the United States District Court for the Southern District of California. Judge Sabraw takes the baton from Chief Judge Larry A. Burns, who has served the Court with distinction for the past two years, including during these trying times of a global pandemic. Judge Sabraw will become the eleventh Chief Judge of the Southern District, following in the footsteps of the many esteemed judges who have served in this role: Senior Judges Barry Ted Moskowitz and Marilyn L. Huff, Judge Irma E. Gonzalez (ret.), and the late Judges Gordon Thompson, Jr., Howard B. Turrentine, Frederick Kunzel, and the namesakes of the two federal district court buildings, Judges Edward J. Schwartz, James M. Carter and Judith N. Keep.


Judge Sabraw received his undergraduate degree from San Diego State University, and his law degree from the University of the Pacific, McGeorge School of Law, where he graduated in the top 10% of his class and was a member of the Law Review. After law school, Judge Sabraw joined Price, Postel & Parma, one of the oldest law firms on the West Coast, where he focused on securities and business litigation in state and federal courts. A few years later, Judge Sabraw returned to San Diego to join the international law firm of Baker & McKenzie, where he eventually became a partner. In 1995, Governor Pete Wilson appointed Judge Sabraw to the San Diego Municipal Court bench, where he later served as presiding judge. Governor Wilson then elevated Judge Sabraw to the San Diego Superior Court bench, where he served as criminal supervising judge and a direct civil calendar judge. After eight years on the state bench, President George W. Bush nominated Judge Sabraw to his current position as a district judge on the federal bench. Judge Sabraw was unanimously confirmed by the United States Senate on September 25, 2003.


In his time as an attorney and judge, Judge Sabraw has been active in a number of professional organizations. He is a founding member and former president of two American Inns of Court in San Diego. He has also served as a member of the Board of Governors of the Association of Business Trial Lawyers, San Diego Chapter, and is a current member, and past board member, of the Pan Asian Lawyers of San Diego. Judge Sabraw also serves on the founding committee of Just the Beginning, a pipeline program which introduces underprivileged high school students to the legal profession through education and mentorship.


In his time on the bench, Judge Sabraw has handled every kind of civil and criminal case imaginable, from simple pro se matters, to cases involving domestic and international drug trafficking organizations, to matters of national prominence, including the family separation case in which Judge Sabraw enjoined the practice of separating migrant families at the U.S.-Mexico border and oversaw the reunification of more than 2,000 children with their parents. He has presided over more than 300 jury trials, and has served as a visiting judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. Judge Sabraw also served as Chair of the Patent Advisory Committee for the Southern District of California, and has served as a judge in the Court’s Patent Pilot Project since 2013. Judge Sabraw also serves as a member of the Judicial Conference Committee on the Judicial Branch at the request of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.


Judge Sabraw is a frequent speaker at law and community related events, and is particularly involved with programs that promote diversity and inclusion. He has received numerous awards from the community and bar associations, including Outstanding Jurist from the San Diego County Bar Association, Judge of the Year from La Raza Lawyers Association of San Diego, Humanitarian of the Year from Casa Cornelia Law Center, Person the Year from the San Diego Union Tribune Editorial Board, Judge of the Year from Consumer Attorneys of San Diego, and the Trailblazer Award from the National Asian Pacific Bar Association.


Although Judge Sabraw’s credentials and accomplishments are no doubt impressive, they are not what makes him an exceptional judge. Rather, what makes him an extraordinary and exemplary judge is his personal character and integrity. If you are fortunate enough to know Judge Sabraw, you know that whatever the context, he is consistently the same person: kind, courteous, respectful, patient, hard-working, dedicated, and steadfast. He is also humble and always quick to deflect praise, choosing instead to remind people of the source of his strengths, the people he describes as “the three pillars” of his life: his parents, Dr. Liston F. Sabraw and Seiko Matsuoka Sabraw, and his Uncle M.O. (“Mody”) Sabraw.


Liston Sabraw was a young army soldier stationed in Japan during the Korean War when he met Seiko Matsuoka. Although interracial marriage was disfavored at that time, Seiko’s father took a liking to the young soldier, and agreed to introduce Liston to his daughter. The introduction was a success, and Liston and Seiko were married shortly thereafter.


After the war, the Sabraws moved to California, where prejudice against the Japanese and mixed-race couples made it difficult for them to find housing. But the couple persevered, settling first in the Bay Area and then in a suburb of Sacramento. The Sabraws both began careers in elementary education, with Liston teaching special needs children and Seiko teaching English as a second language. Two of the Sabraws’ three children, Judge Sabraw’s brother Craig and his sister Michelle, continued their parents’ path into education, where Craig teaches physical education and Michelle teaches second-grade. Judge Sabraw describes his childhood as idyllic, and his parents as models of civility who “never raised their voices or uttered an unkind word to each other.”


Judge Sabraw’s Uncle Mody also served as a role model, but in a different capacity, namely as Justice M.O. Sabraw of the California Court of Appeal, First Appellate District. Growing up, Judge Sabraw observed his Uncle while he was on the bench, and the two often discussed the law and the legal profession. Judge Sabraw credits his Uncle with encouraging him to apply to law school, and supporting him on his journey into the law and onto the bench.


Law school served not only to ignite Judge Sabraw’s career but to alter the course of his life. There, he met his “soulmate” and future wife of 34 years, Summer Stephan. Judge Sabraw first noticed Summer when she made a speech to his class while running for student body president, a position she won. Like his father, Judge Sabraw sought an introduction to this “most intriguing creature” who had captured his heart and mind. Fortunately, Judge Sabraw and Summer had a mutual friend who thought they would be a good match, and she agreed to introduce them. The two had an instant connection, and were engaged just five months later.


As they built their life together, the Sabraws have each enjoyed rewarding and remarkable careers. Both were drawn to public service, where Summer now serves as the elected District Attorney for San Diego County and Judge Sabraw serves as a federal district judge. The Sabraws have also enjoyed the personal success of raising three happy and healthy children into accomplished adults. Their son Jack and daughter Kim are both graduates of the University of California, Berkeley. Jack now works for a non-profit organization, where he has helped develop and implement a curriculum for children called “Project ROOTS” that is being widely adopted in public schools to reduce gender based violence and increase resilience among vulnerable children. After graduating from Berkeley, Kim taught special needs children for two years through Teach for America in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Kim’s twin sister Steph graduated from the University of California, Davis, where she played Division I Field Hockey all four years and made the All-Conference Team. Steph is now a multi-media entertainment producer and host in Los Angeles. Kim is also the latest Sabraw to enter the San Diego legal community, having recently graduated from the University of San Diego School of Law. She is a civil litigator at a prominent local medical malpractice law firm and is enjoying practice under California’s provisional licensing program while awaiting her California bar results.


Judge Sabraw’s love and devotion to his family and his commitment to honor their memory is exemplary. The through line of Judge Sabraw’s character, however, is his commitment to the principles of honor, respect and gratitude. He honors his parents, his Uncle and those who have helped him along his path by mentoring others: students, attorneys, and new judges. In his seventeen years on the federal bench, he has now sent twelve law clerks and many more externs out into the practice of the law, where they will no doubt share with others the lessons they learned from him. And he is always available to attorneys and new judges who seek him out for feedback and advice.


The respect Judge Sabraw has for our system of justice and the people who make that system work is, also, always evident, and faithful to his middle name Makoto, which translates to “truth.” In carrying out his profound responsibilities, Judge Sabraw makes sure that justice is available to everyone. He gives each case the same level of attention, care and consideration, and ensures that all parties are provided with a full and fair opportunity to be heard. He provides the attorneys with a calm, orderly, efficient, and welcoming environment in which to make their case, and through his example, sets a tone of solemnity and respect that is echoed by everyone in the courtroom. If you have had the pleasure of trying a case before Judge Sabraw, you have also heard his closing remarks to jurors extolling the virtues of our system of justice, the importance of their participation, and his gratitude for their service. That gratitude extends outside the courtroom, as well, to chambers staff, Clerk’s Office employees, court security officers, and building maintenance workers.


Judge Sabraw’s love of work is apparent, having never taken a day of sick leave in 35 years of practicing law and serving on the bench. His sense of gratitude and reverence for our system of justice is a testament to his parents and his Uncle Mody, and to all of those people who have guided him along the path he chose so many years ago. One of those people, his friend and mentor, the Honorable William B. Enright, described Judge Sabraw as “the epitome of what a federal judge should be.”


I can think of no person better suited or equipped to represent the Court as our next Chief Judge.


*Moana McMullan is a graduate of the University of San Diego School of Law. She has served the Court as an extern for the Honorable Ruben B. Brooks, law clerk for the Honorable Louisa S. Porter, and law clerk in the Pro Se Unit. In 2003, Judge Sabraw invited her to join his chambers as a law clerk, where she currently serves as his career clerk. Moana is beyond grateful for the opportunity to work for Judge Sabraw, and looks forward to many more years in his chambers.