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August 30, 2005 > Judge M.O. Sabraw

Judge M.O. Sabraw

Only a very select group of people can say that they have served as a justice of the Supreme Court of California. M.O. Sabraw is one of those few, but has much more in his resume that distinguishes him as a respected officer of the court with lengthy personal ties to both the practice of law and the local Tri-City community.

Following action as an army paratrooper during World War II., Sabraw left the military and found the GI Bill for college expenses an attractive option. He says, "The service taught me that education was a key to where you went and how you went." Writing to the University of California, Sabraw expressed his interest by saying, "I made the world safe for democracy and now I would like to go to school." Advised by the university to take a refresher classes, Sabraw returned to his "hometown" of Santa Rosa and attended Junior College. Sabraw married Betty, King, his "high school sweetheart," and completed the make-up classes as well as his first two years of undergraduate course work before again applying to the Berkeley campus. He was accepted and enrolled with a Political Science major.

Sabraw met several others who turned out to be life-long friends in a public speaking class. Most of them were interested in Law School, so Sabraw, decided to apply to law school too. Initially on a different career path, he figured, "If I get a year of law school under my belt, it will serve me well whatever I do." He completed the entire curriculum and thought seriously about re-entering the military, but decided to pursue a career in law instead.

Trial experience was what he wanted so Sabraw applied to District Attorney's offices in Northern California. Without any offers, a former classmate asked him to consider moving to Castro Valley where a local attorney offered office space and the overflow of his business. It sounded good, but with a family of four, money was tight and soon became a pressing issue. At that time Sabraw met a local attorney, Gene Rhodes, and Judge Edward Quaresma, a justice court judge in Centerville. "He was a mentor and a giant in my book," says Sabraw.

Rhodes moved his practice to Centerville, joining with Judge Quaresma and about that time, Sabraw received an offer of employment from the District Attorney's office in Santa Rosa. Sabraw enjoyed the work, but soon Rhodes appeared asking if he would move to Centerville to join the group of attorneys that now included Morris Hyman. "We really need you," said Rhodes, but Sabraw deferred since he had just taken the Santa Rosa position.

A year went by and Rhodes appeared again. This time, with offers of assistance to buy a house in the area, Sabraw explained to his employer, "It's an offer I can't turn down." The Sabraw family moved to Newark in 1955 and M.O. began practice in the Centerville office. Incorporation was a hot topic and there were many meetings at the school auditorium to discuss plans for the new city. "Those were fun years," says Sabraw.

Judge Quaresma was appointed to the Municipal Court when the first court district was formed in the area. Sabraw was a trial attorney, did quite a bit of real estate work - "I enjoyed that end of it" - and served as General Counsel for the Washington Township Hospital District. "I remember walking out in gum boots on the construction site when the hospital was just getting under way." He continued to represent the hospital until he became a municipal judge in 1968.

In 1962, Sabraw decided to leave the group and, along with attorney Fred Avera. Morris Hyman had become full-time counsel for the Alameda County Water District and eventually started Fremont Bank. Gene Rhodes was, according to Sabraw, "an outstanding trial lawyer." He adds, "Some of the best training I got was observing him in trials."

Sabraw served on the Washington Union High School District Board and later, as president of the Fremont Unified School District. A busy attorney, Sabraw made time to work through the chairs of Niles Rotary and boards of the YMCA and local bar association. The firm of Sabraw &Avera prospered and grew to include Quaresma when he retired from the bench becoming Quaresma, Sabraw & Avera. By the time Sabraw was appointed to the municipal court by Governor Ronald Reagan and began court duties on March 1, 1968, the firm had grown substantially. M.O. Sabraw was sworn in by his mentor, retired judge Quaresma, who commented, "M.O. Sabraw typifies all the important traits of a judge: conscience, heart, dignity and patience."

The transition was "extremely comfortable" and "a very satisfying experience." He adds, "It was challenging and gave a sense of contributing." His rapport with local lawyers changed due to his position and Sabraw soon realized that his position dictated a different relationship.

Appointed to Superior Court by Governor Reagan in 1970, the type of cases Judge Sabraw heard broadened. After a year in the civil law area, a new department opened called "criminal law in motion." Sabraw was assigned to this department and says "it was challenging" doing the preliminary law and motion work before criminal cases went on to trial. He served in the Juvenile Court for a year and then moved to the Hayward court.

Some well-known cases that Judge Sabraw has heard include the Steven Stayner kidnapping case where Kenneth Parnell was caught after he kidnapped another child, Timmy White. The case had been moved from Merced. The Timmy White trial was also assigned to Judge Sabraw since he heard the Stayner case.

During this time, another "trial" was occurring in the courtroom. On an experimental basis, cameras and other electronic equipment was allowed in the courtroom. Sabraw says that after some initial trepidation over the exposure, the trial went smoothly without much thought about the cameras. Sabraw also wrote the decision when the Raiders decided to move to Los Angeles from Oakland. "I made enemies of my grandkids" with that one, says Sabraw with a laugh.

In the final days of 1984, M.O. Sabraw was appointed to the California Court of Appeal (First District) by Governor George Deukmejian. Sworn in on January 3, 1985, Judge Sabraw entered a different court atmosphere. The Court of Appeal is much more of an "academic community" according to Judge Sabraw. Generally, an appeal would be based on the contention that the facts do not fit the judgment, the law doesn't fit the judgment, the judge gave improper instructions or there was a misinterpretation of the law.

Court of Appeal decisions not only address a particular case, but areas where the law is ambiguous and needs to be modified or clarified. "You are making law," says Sabraw. "When writing those decisions, you are thinking of the impact on the body of law in this area.. It is a completely different experience from trial court."

Judge Sabraw was asked by Chief Justice Malcolm Lucas on several occasions to fill in for an absent judge on the California Supreme Court. Although this added to his already heavy workload, the honor of being asked to participate on the California Supreme Court is not something that is turned down. "I was blessed with an excellent staff" to support my schedule, says Sabraw. "It was a great thrill."

While on the Court of Appeal, an interesting case in which Judge Sabraw wrote a dissenting opinion was that of a Ukiah man who lost his hunting dogs when he left them for a day in the care of a neighbor boy. The neighbor admitted that a caretaker of his cattle and fowl had killed the dogs. The dog owner sued his neighbor but the case was denied by the Superior Court. The basis of the ruling was a statute from the 1800s that allowed the killing if the dogs crossed a property line where there are confined animals or fowl. While his two colleagues concurred with the ruling, Sabraw looked at present attitudes versus those of over 100 years ago. He wrote a dissenting opinion including the phrase, "If Lassie had been required to recognize a land perimeter or fence, Lassie would have never got home."

After three years on the Municipal Court, 14 years on the Superior Court and three years on the Court of Appeals, Judge Sabraw retired. "I went on the court March 1968 and left March 1988, a total of 20 years."

Retirement years have been active. Judge Sabraw became involved with "private judging." Enabling legislation allowed a retired judge to take a civil case off the court calendar if all parties agree and try it in their conference room and file a judgment at the courthouse. He says, "If you read one of the transcripts, you couldn't tell the difference." He says, "I didn't retire with the idea of doing this since I had a 'honey do' list waiting for me."

While some of the Sabraw family has branched into other professions, law retains a large vocational hold. His wife of ten years, Bonnie, has been on the Superior Court for 17 years and a son and daughter have studied law; his daughter is currently on the research staff of Judge Consuelo Callahan of the Ninth Federal Circuit Court of Appeals. A nephew is a federal judge. Another son and his wife both practice law and a son-in-law is a practicing attorney. He comments that with all the lawyers in the family, "We have lots of interesting conversations."

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