Photo by Felix Sanchez
Sandra Peake believes impartiality is vital for judges, both maintaining it and maintaining the appearance of it.
That’s why she doesn’t add pins or other accessories to her robe that might indicate support of a particular political party or organization, although she admits to wearing her pearls virtually all of the time.
“Once your put your robe on, there should be nothing about your manner, your dress, your attitude that would suggest anything other than that you’re there to hear the case in front of you,” says Peake, one of 17 Black women judges whom voters in Harris County, Texas, elected in 2018 to a bench that previously had only two.
“The parties involved should know they have 100% of your attention, and you’re going to listen to what their position is and make a ruling based on the law,” she says. “That’s all anybody wants.”
It was the concept of fairness that motivated Peake to seek election to the 257th Family District Court in the first place, an ideal she references on her Twitter account. She’s making her first bid for re-election this year.
Even now, the jurist recalls the respect with which she viewed judges when she began her own law practice in the 1980s, the confidence she had in their fairness and her concern as partisan political preferences became increasingly visible in the county’s legal system starting in the mid-1990s.
Previously, there was a perception “that you had to be an insider,” she says.
“There were judges who had coffee in their chambers every morning, went on hunting trips and enjoyed expensive dinners,” she adds. “That’s why I make sure that I don’t do anything that gives anyone else the impression of influence, and that includes unlimited access to me. I don’t see lawyers in chambers when the door is not open and you can’t see what’s going on. We have open courtrooms where we can meet.”
Lawdragon: I agree. Displaying judicial impartiality is crucial to maintaining trust in our system, perhaps more so today than ever. What you’ve done underscores the importance of the fresh attitudes you and the other members of the 19 bring.
Sandra Peake: We have a different perspective. I’ve learned so much by being on the other side of the bench. Not only are we really trying to cross our “cross our t’s and dot our i’s,” we’re also avoiding the appearance of impropriety. We’ve had to be really careful. It is such a privilege to be serving in this capacity. This is the best job on the planet for me. I’m not interested in any higher office; I love what I do every single day.
Scales of Justice
Lawdragon: That’s amazing. And your standards show how high your expectations are for the people who are chosen to sit on the bench.
Sandra Peake: When I came out of law school, I had a very optimistic attitude about the justice system and what was expected of us and understood what an honor and a privilege it was to be part of this profession. When I saw a person in a black robe, I expected they would be fair. The scales of justice are displayed throughout the courts, and the seal of the state is mounted on the wall behind the bench, so it’s visible when judges are presiding in a courtroom.
So yes, I expect judges to be fair, to be balanced in their approach, to be polite. I expect them to be knowledgeable about the law and to treat litigants fairly. When I started practicing, I didn't pay any attention to whether a judge was a Republican or a Democrat. My reasoning at that time was that I didn’t ask my clients whether they were Republicans or Democrats. I always felt that as long as I had a level playing field and the judge was fair, it should not matter.
Lawdragon: Absolutely. Did that ever change?
Sandra Peake: Well, in the mid-1990s, the Republicans swept the judgeships in Harris County, and the difference in the courthouse atmosphere before and after was like night and day. All of a sudden, there were some judges, not all, making pronouncements such as, "If you're not a Republican, you're not getting any appointments here." It was just really weird. All of a sudden, the politics had become more important than the job that we were doing. There was lots of very visible wearing of the American flag pin, which Republicans adopted as a symbol, that identified those wearing it as an insider.
Lawdragon: Was that when the idea of running to become a judge began to take shape for you?
Sandra Peake: The first time I ran was in 1998; I definitely have a long-haul mentality. There’s probably one other person in Harris County who’s run for county-wide office more times than I have, and the only bench I ever ran for was the Family Court bench. What I discovered was that if you were not a Republican, you could not win a countywide race. That went on cycle after cycle. Another fact was that the family benches are up for election in gubernatorial and not presidential years. People come out for presidential elections; many times, they do not have the same response for gubernatorial elections.
So I ran in 2010 and I ran in 2014, when I honestly thought Democrats had a good shot at winning. But it didn't happen. I can't tell you how demoralizing it was.
Lawdragon: But you kept going. And it sounds like you’ve been a strong advocate for diversity in the bench and in the profession for a while.
Sandra Peake: I attended the University of Houston Law Center at a time when minority students were just beginning to enroll there. There were very few minority students at the law center at the time. When I started practicing, though, I began to notice that there were more women, not just black women, getting licensed, and we were visually making a difference in the courtrooms.
Kathy Whitmire, Houston’s first woman mayor, was in office at the time, and there were lots of changes going on, so it was interesting to see that evolution.
What began to bother me was that, even though I practiced in several counties, I never once had an opportunity in a family or probate or bankruptcy case, to practice in front of anybody who even remotely looked like me. There were no persons of color, male or female, except for one or two in the criminal courts.
It was significant to note that even the associate judges’ positions were filled with Republicans. The browner and the more female the bar became, especially in Family Court, the less the lack of diversity made sense.
Lawdragon: You definitely had a unique perspective, seeing how that played out in the practice of law in those courts. Tell me a little about why you became a lawyer in the first place.
Sandra Peake: I was a political science major, and I used to really like debating and verbal engagement. I did a lot of that when I was in undergraduate school. As it turned out, my now-husband but then-boyfriend was just coming out of law school, and he suggested that I go to law school as well. So I applied, and I went. That’s a true story. We laugh about it all the time, but that's about the sequence. When you come out of undergraduate school with a political science degree, you are trained to do nothing. You can flounder around for years unless you go to graduate school or find some other way to expand your skill set.
Lawdragon: Did you know any lawyers growing up?
Sandra Peake: Actually, no. My dad worked for the school system, as did my mom. And the only lawyer I ever came in contact with was a guy whose children I babysat for. It wasn't until I actually went to law school that I realized that there were students sitting next to me who had uncles and neighbors and grandfathers and aunts and uncles who were lawyers and judges. Some had lots of other-than-negative experience with the legal system. Your situation makes a huge difference in your perspective.
Since my husband's a lawyer and I'm a lawyer, everything we talked about from the time the kids were very little until they left the house had some legal implication. And as a consequence, one is an educator who is adept at analyzing and arguing every point. Our daughter, meanwhile, is a licensed attorney.
Lawdragon: What kind of law does your husband practice?
Sandra Peake: My husband started out working for legal services, which he did for a little less than two years, and then he worked for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. It was always his dream that he would have his own practice so that he could take the kinds of cases that he wanted. We started our practice with family and probate cases and a few criminal cases, and about two years into it, he took a bankruptcy case and never looked back. He was appointed a Chapter 13 bankruptcy trustee in 1998, and he's still serving in that capacity in the Southern District of Texas. He also served as the president of the National Association of Chapter 13 Trustees, and he just finished his term with that.
Lawdragon: Incredible. Had you always practiced together before that?
Sandra Peake: He and I practiced together for 16 years. Once he was appointed, we didn't share office space. I closed what had been our practice in December 2018.
Lawdragon: Interesting. Is there a particular life experience from that era that captures who you are as a person and a professional?
Sandra Peake: I didn't necessarily set out to practice family law as extensively as I wound up doing, but every time I met a new client, that client wasn’t just a case. The client had a family behind them, and remember, we were raising a family as we built our practice, so I was constantly worried about raising kids in terms of what they were exposed to, what was going on at home.
I knew how challenged, sometimes, we were trying to get ready for court, get the kids ready for school, get them to school, pick them up, get their homework done, get them fed, get them to bed. By 9 p.m., we’d be like, “Oh my God, how did I get through another day?”
When we were opening our business, there were some nights that we were there at 8 p.m. or 9 p.m. as well as on Saturdays and Sundays. And then we'd have to allocate who was going to watch the kids, who would wash the dishes and buy the groceries so that it would be fair, so that everybody could get their cases done and ready.
You do it because you're young, because you know that there is an end in sight and that if you just keep planning, it'll be fine. My husband and I have been married for 42 years now, which we recognize as a milestone, particularly having dealt with so many fractured families.
In bankruptcy, probate, criminal and family cases, all these issues intersect. For example, people who come in and are having financial problems might have needed to file a bankruptcy claim instead of a divorce action. Or people might come in for a bankruptcy case and the real problem is that one person is trying to keep the kids in the same school district, maintain the household, and the other isn’t working or has a drug or alcohol problem. Domestic violence is a huge issue.
My point is that coming into contact with the kinds of families and issues that I did gave me a healthy respect for just how much the family dynamic can adversely or positively affect you as you're growing up. I have 40-year-olds still lamenting the fact that their parents got divorced when they were young and wondering how different their lives might have been otherwise.
Tempering authority with humility
Lawdragon: It’s stunning how long the impact of childhood experiences can last, especially in relationships and attitudes toward relationships. Do you recall any situations in which a judge’s decision had a profound effect on your clients or their families?
Sandra Peake: As a young lawyer, I was appointed to represent a young mother of 4 children. She was charged with several felonies, having been implicated in a string of video store robberies.
Fortunately, no one was seriously injured, but the crimes with which she was charged were serious. I struggled to obtain obtain a favorable plea offer from the state. This woman had 4 young children and no husband.
I finally decided to request the court assess punishment without a recommendation from the state. Before doing so, I requested a conference with the presiding judge of that court along with the prosecutor. He happened to be an African-American male.
Judge Thomas Routt listened to my argument for deferred adjudication, which, if granted, would allow my client to return to her children under strictly supervised probation. If she successfully completed the probation, her case would be dismissed. If she failed, the full range of punishment for the offense with which she was charged would be available.
Approximately 10 years later, a young woman approached me at the local Luby’s and asked if I remembered her. She had an unusual last name, so of course I then knew exactly who she was.
She then began to share with me her accomplishments since she had been placed on deferred adjudication: She had obtained stable employment in the mortgage industry, she was purchasing a house, her children were graduating from high school with scholarships and plans to attend college, etc.
She thanked me for believing in her. I reminded her that but for the judge who was able to understand her situation as explained to him, she never would have been handed the opportunity to truly turn her life around.
The rest was up to her. That case was one I will never forget because it reminds me that judges have a huge amount of responsibility and authority. They need humility as well so that they don’t forget to weigh the circumstances of the litigant before them in tandem with the facts of the case and applicable law.
Front-line workers get a break
Lawdragon: That’s very true. Judges have immense power in people’s lives. Can you tell me a bit about some of the trends and changes you’re seeing in court, particularly in relation to the pandemic?
Sandra Peake: Most of the courts have adopted Zoom or some other video-conferencing platform that allows litigants to access their hearings from the comfort of their home, classroom or car. We’ve found for the most part that those innovations have allowed people to have short hearings as well as hearings that last several days. Participants are growing accustomed to screen-sharing to identify themselves and introduce their exhibits.
We have quite a few cases that require interpreters because of the diversity of the county that our courts serve, and the ability to have an interpreter appear via Zoom and translate is an innovation that wasn’t previously available for this type of platform.
Video hearings are particularly beneficial for hourly employees, who now can take off only the time they need for the hearing itself rather than the half-day or full day they might otherwise need to travel to and from the courts. That saves them the cost and inconvenience of child care and other arrangements, making the justice system more accessible. It curbs the disproportionately negative impact that hourly employees have suffered from the way courts traditionally operated.
We also just started an express docket where people can seek time without an appointment as long as they have a case number.
Lawdragon: That’s an innovative change. How did it come about?
Sandra Peake: We had lawyers coming by who needed hearing dates, claiming they couldn’t get through to the courts by phone or e-mail. We decided that we could adapt and address the inaccessibility by making ourselves accessible between 8:15 to 8:50 before the dockets are called. So far, that particular approach has been well received by the bar as well as the public.