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Rex Sater, longtime Sonoma County judge, dies at 84

Rex Sater in 1997.

PD File
Published: Friday, January 20, 2012 at 6:50 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 20, 2012 at 6:50 p.m.

Retired Sonoma County Superior Court Judge Rex Sater, a revered jurist credited with humanizing family-law court statewide by pressing couples in divorce to think of their children and work out their disputes themselves, died Friday.

Sater was the county's most liberal judge when Gov. Jerry Brown appointed him to the bench in 1976 and was regarded as a humble, intellectual and compassionate legal titan when he stepped down in 1997. He was 84.

The former stage actor, faithful Grateful Dead fan and natural wit suffered the effects of several strokes prior to his death at the Santa Rosa home he shared with his wife of 55 years, Kate Sater.

“He was easy to be with,” she said. “He was just a lovely man.”

When the Virginia-born and Alabama-reared Sater was assigned to handle family law hearings in 1980, landing that assignment was to draw the short straw.

“He took over running the family-law calendar at a time when no one wanted to do the work, and he turned it into an art form,” said fellow retired Sonoma County judge Arnie Rosenfield.

Retired judge Joseph Murphy said the unassuming, self-deprecating Sater “revolutionized family law here in the county.”

Sater was not impressed with attorneys for battling on behalf of ex-spouses who came into the courtroom girded to attempt to vanquish the other side. He changed the rules of engagement by looking both members of the former couple in the eyes and gently, firmly assuring them that they did not want lawyers and judges to decide how their family disputes would be settled.

“He thought people could resolve their issues, almost all of the time, better than a stranger in a black robe,” said veteran Santa Rosa attorney Margaret Anderson.

Sater required that, prior to coming to court, the adversaries meet and attempt to come to agreement on their own. Larry Moskowitz, a Santa Rosa attorney who appeared often before Sater on family-law cases in the mid-1980s, recalled that in the midst of a court hearing the judge would sometimes direct the former spouses to go out into the hallway and try again to resolve their issues.

“If the people came back in and he didn't think they'd tried hard enough, he'd send them out again,” Moskowitz said.

Colleagues said Sater was the first judge in California to require that family-law litigants meet and confer prior to bringing their conflicts before a judge. The approach often worked, and resulted in many divorcing couples coming to terms without incurring attorneys' fees and taking up courtroom time.

“It became a statewide practice,” said Amy Rodney, another longtime Santa Rosa attorney who admired Sater. She said he “understood the importance of making good decisions about children and helping people get through that difficult time in their lives.”

“He brought a humanity to the family-law assignment that was really special,” Rodney said.

Sater handled the county's family-law calendar from 1980 to 1985. His pioneer efforts to replace courtroom confrontation with genuine attempts at conciliation won him, in 1986, “Judicial Officer of the Year” honors from the family law section of the State Bar of California.

Every year, the Sonoma County Bar Association presents the “Rex Sater Award for Excellence” to an individual or group whose work honors the belief “that people hold the answers to their family conflict locked in their own hearts.”

As a young man, Sater started out as a stage actor, training at New York's prestigious Actor's Studio. His future wife was acting, too, when they met and fell in love. Sater adored Kate and referred to her often as his “companion for the journey.”

He earned his law degree from the University of Virginia in 1962 and later that same year he and Kate settled in Santa Rosa. Sater went into private practice and became active in the American Civil Liberties Union.

His liberal politics — and his full beard — made him stand out when Jerry Brown appointed him to an expanded Sonoma County bench in 1976.

“People used to tease him about his kind of liberal stances on things, compared to mine,” said retired judge John Gallagher.

“He had a feeling for the people and he had a good heart,” Gallagher said. “He didn't like clamping down on people any more than he had to, but when he had to he did.”

Attorney Anderson recalled Sater referring to himself as “one of those flaky Brown appointees.” But he quickly established himself as a caring, deliberate and diligent judge, especially with the humanity and innovation he brought to family court.

“He really agonized over tough decisions because he knew his decision would impact the lives of people,” said veteran Santa Rosa attorney and family friend Mike Senneff.

Judge Gary Nadler called Sater “the epitome of the compassionate jurist.”

“He was certainly a giant among judges in this county,” Nadler said.

Sater administered justice with good humor, often with a smile and nearly always with even temper. Said retired judge Rosenfield, “The only time you ever had to be concerned about Rex was when he took his glasses off.”

Attorney Anderson relishes thinking about the time Sater tossed his glasses onto his the bench out of frustration as attorneys for two ex-spouses bickered over which would get the broken hibachi. Anderson said Sater announced that during the lunch recess, “I am going to drive to Kmart and buy a hibachi and break it, and then they can each have one.”

Roz Bateman Smith, a former courtroom clerk for Sater, remembers hearing the judge singing Grateful Dead songs as he walked from his chambers to the courtroom. Smith appreciated that Sater kept on his courtroom wall a framed saying in Latin that meant, generally, “You create your reality.”

“He was probably the kindest, most considerate man that I have ever had the pleasure to work with,” Smith said. “And he really felt that people had a choice when they came before him: They could work things out for themselves or a have a stranger in a black robe work it out for them.”

The youngest of the Saters' three daughters, schoolteacher Eliza Sater of Davis, said, “The public image of my father was really true. He was as wonderful as he looked to the public.”

“He once told me he felt like he had lived a blessed life.”

In addition to his wife in Santa Rosa and his daughter in Davis, Sater is survived by daughters Amy Sater of Houston and Rachel Sater of Oakland, and five grandchildren.

Plans for a funeral service are pending.

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