Longtime 225th District Court Judge Peter Sakai made his name taking on a job few others wanted: Overseeing Bexar County’s high number of child maltreatment cases.

Now that Sakai is running for county judge, however, well-qualified candidates from both parties, as well a number of other judges, are eager to pick up where Sakai left off working in the children’s court.

Running to replace Sakai in the 225th are two family lawyers with ample experience in the children’s court. Democrat Christine Vasquez Hortick served as president of the Bexar County Children’s Court Association and ran unsuccessfully for a seat on the Commissioners Court in 2020. Republican Renée Yanta served seven years as a state district judge and founded a program that mentors and supports girls and young women who are in or coming out of the foster care system.

Child maltreatment is exceptionally prevalent in Bexar County, so much so that Sakai’s predecessor, John Specia, asked the state Legislature to give the 225th district court special authority to focus solely on those cases. The idea was promoted by the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court, which believed that having a consistent judge was in the best interest of children and families.

Gov. Greg Abbott did not appoint a replacement to Sakai’s seat after he retired in October 2021. In his absence, a number of other judges have taken over his work.

Judge Monique Diaz, a Democrat who defeated Yanta in 2018 to win the 150th District Court seat, said she picked up Sakai’s family drug court and the early childhood court dockets. Another judge, Mary Lou Alvarez in the 45th District Court, said she took over the docket for children without placement.

This week, the civil court judges currently working on these cases agreed to continue dividing the work of the children’s court among themselves, rather than keep it consolidated under the 225th.

Replacing Sakai

Working on the children’s court hasn’t always been popular.

Attorneys have long complained of low pay for emotionally taxing work, and Sakai even took a leave of absence after sending a 14-month old girl back to live with her mother, who later killed her.

Yet Sakai received high praise and media attention for his years of work on the children’s court, and this year emerged from a hard-fought primary and runoff to become the Democratic nominee for county judge.

Sakai declined to be interviewed for the story.

This year both of the candidates running to replace Sakai tout impressive credentials.

Both graduated from St. Mary’s University School of Law: Hortick after receiving her undergraduate degree from the University of Massachusetts and working as an aide for former U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy in Boston, Yanta after graduating from the University of Texas and working several years as a public school teacher in Austin and then in San Antonio. 

They also have a strong interest in continuing to focus on cases involving children and families.

“I have a very, very deep level of experience and a track record of very deep concern and interest and investment in the children’s court institutions,” said Yanta, who founded the PEARLS Court to help girls in foster care overcome the challenges they have faced.

The program has since expanded to include a version for boys and young men, and Yanta has been closely involved since leaving the bench and returning to practice law.

If elected, “I will be taking [all different kinds of] cases off of the district court docket because that is my primary responsibility,” said Yanta. But “if the [several] judges who are currently administering children’s court would be willing to accept my help, I am raising my hand.”

Hortick has also focused her legal career on children and families.

“One of my aunts was a [Child Protective Services] worker, and she said, ‘Oh, that would be a good area of law for you to get into,'” said Hortick, who opened her own practice after graduating from law school in 2005. “I wasn’t too excited about it because of the subject matter. You know, I didn’t think I would like having to deal with those types of cases.”

Her perspective changed the more she worked on CPS cases. Hortick said she was first appointed to represent children or parents, then eventually was retained by clients such as foster parents and grandparents seeking to keep or regain custody of children.

“It’s a really good feeling when you represent a parent and you’re able to help guide them through the process and really help them understand what they were doing wrong and the effects they had on their family,” said Hortick, who approached Sakai about running for his seat before he had announced plans to run for county judge.

“When those parents understand what they need to do, and they really realize that and they’re able to be reunited with their kids. … That’s a great feeling,” Hortick said.

Political tides

Résumés aside, Hortick and Yanta are among the roughly two dozen county judicial candidates waging campaigns in which their qualifications are unlikely to have much influence in the Nov. 8 midterm election. 

State criminal and civil district court judges are typically swept in and out of office by the political tides of the election cycle, which in 2018 took out nine Republican incumbents, including Yanta. That year Democrat Beto O’Rourke carried Bexar County with 59% of the vote in his unsuccessful U.S. Senate race.

“When evaluating who should be your judge you look at a lot of criteria, and while our state overlays that with [partisan affiliations], we all need to be taking a more serious look at people’s qualifications,” said Yanta. “We had good, hard working, law-oriented people — a lot of them were Republican — and they all got swept out [in 2018] because our community as a whole is not aware of what judges do.”

The 2018 election ushered in a class of Democratic judges made up predominantly of younger Hispanic women. The following year the state’s Republican leaders created a task force to “study and review the method by which statutory county court judges” are selected for office.

“If you look at the Republican judges that were elected previously, you would see that they made the attempts to run at the same level of experience as we did,” said Diaz, who at age 34 was the state’s youngest elected Latina civil district court judge. “So it wasn’t a problem when Republicans were in office, but it was a problem when a whole slate of young Latina Democratic judges became elected.”

Headed into this November’s midterm election, just four of the county’s 24 civil and criminal judgeships are represented by Republicans. All of the current GOP-held seats were unopposed in 2018 but will have a Democrat on the Nov. 8 ballot.

In a nod to the uphill nature of judicial campaigns, former San Antonio Councilwoman Elisa Chan has sought to revive an old political action committee called the Committee for Judicial Reform, which raised money for Republican judicial candidates up until the 2014 election cycle.

“Most judges, their budgets are very, very small, and they oftentimes are subject to the [prevailing political] wave,” said Chan, who put some of her own money behind the effort. She said the group raised another $20,000 at a fundraiser in early October, and is currently funding road signs for some Republican judicial candidates in Bexar County.

Andrea Drusch writes about local government for the San Antonio Report. She's covered politics in Washington, D.C., and Texas for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, National Journal and Politico.