A hometown is a hard thing to pin down for a child who grows up in the military, as Renée Yanta did. For her, it became the town that welcomed and adopted her when she was in high school. It’s the one she would long for and return to when starting her own family and now the place where she presides as judge in the 150th District Court.
But home for a child who grows up in foster care, often moving from one to another, is even harder to claim and sorely elusive for many. This Yanta has taken to heart, fulfilling her duty to bring justice to everyone who enters her courtroom while creating a model therapeutic court for teen girls in state care.
A self-proclaimed military brat, Yanta was born in Florida, lived all over the world as a child, and came to San Antonio as a teenager when her father was stationed at what was then known as Randolph Air Force Base.
“I thought it was a great experience,” she said. “I had lots of friends and experiences. My parents always felt like the place we were stationed would have its own attributes, and it was our job to experience them and make them the fabric of us.”
After high school, Yanta attended college in Colorado and then the University of Texas. She earned a degree and taught school in Austin for seven years before moving back to San Antonio and teaching at MacArthur High School, where she taught government and economics, and developed an interest in Constitutional law.
Yanta took the Law School Admission Test, “kind of on a lark,” she said, and did well. While raising two children, she attended St. Mary’s University School of Law and graduated in 1993 at the top of her class. That led to a job at Fulbright & Jaworski (now Norton Rose Fulbright) and arguing her first Texas Supreme Court case when she was only a third-year lawyer. In 2002, Yanta went to work for Cox Smith (now Dykema Cox Smith), heading up the firm’s appellate division.
Appointed by Gov. Rick Perry in 2010 to fill a vacancy on the 73rd District Court, she lost her bid for re-election in another Democratic sweep in 2012 but ran again successfully for the 150th in 2014. Her campaign slogan then and now is a reference to an Old Testament verse: Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly.
Judgeship gave Yanta the opportunity to ensure justice for all parties in her courtroom, she said, and also get a close-up view of gaps in the system. “And the one that absolutely broke my heart was the inability of our system to make sure that kids, especially teenagers, who are stuck in foster care are able to succeed,” she said.
From that empathy, PEARLS Court was born in 2015 for girls who needed to learn life skills and perseverance, a place of acceptance and support – a home of sorts. PEARLS stands for preparation, esteem, achievement, resiliency, learning, strength, and stamina, and is a metaphor for girls overcoming adversity to shine.
In January, Yanta steps down from her judicial seat when her opponent in the midterm elections, Monique Diaz, takes the bench. State district court judges like Yanta run as political party candidates in Texas, which often results in partisan sweeps similar to November’s elections results.
In a recent interview with the Rivard Report, Yanta reflected on her courthouse tenure, founding PEARLS Court, her loss in the election – which still gets her emotional – and what’s next for her. What follows are her responses, edited for length and clarity.
Rivard Report: By all accounts, PEARLS Court, which you founded, has made a difference for girls in foster care. How effective has it been and why?
Yanta: One of the first girls who came into the program wouldn’t even look at me. She had been in a residential treatment center for a significant time, transitioned into a group home, and just needed somebody to believe in her, some continuity and stability, and someone to love her. In beginning, she was hardly even able to express herself. But after joining PEARLS, she tried out for school plays and even when she didn’t get a spot on the cast, she kept trying. She graduated from high school on the A-B honor roll.
It’s not just because of PEARLS Court, because she had a great foster family that adopted her and a great caseworker. But she had this group of women (PEARLS volunteers), and a judge who would never give up on her – and encouraged her and celebrated her even when she didn’t have what the world would call a ‘win.’ That’s the story of PEARLS.
We have worked with over 60 girls, and 90 percent have graduated from high school. We’ve had not a single pregnancy, not even among our alums. We’ve had a couple of run-ins with juvenile justice, some runaways, but we were able to get them back, and they were small issues we were able to handle in a positive way. We were able to reunify a few families, which is unheard of. So PEARLS takes my breath away, what we as a community have done.
RR: A large portion of your docket is family law cases — divorce, custody, child support, and child protection. In these kinds of cases, judges make vital and far-reaching decisions. Is that a daunting task?
Yanta: This job is crucially significant in the lives of the people who come to the courthouse. Every single day, I’m trying to create peace around children who are in the midst of strife because their parents are going through a divorce or disagreement on how to raise them. Yesterday, I had a hearing with two teen kids trying so hard to have stability, and both tell me stories that break your heart. So yeah, giving the family an opportunity to try again, but always making sure we keep children safe, it’s the most important job you can have.
RR: How do you feel about your defeat in the recent elections considering your years of experience and contributions to the judicial system?
Yanta: I believe that maybe voters did not receive the kind of information they needed to make good choices. I’m not denigrating in any way the woman who is soon to be judge – I mean her no disrespect, and I wish her the best, I really do.
But I’ve been a judge for seven years. I’m a really good judge; I love the law and I had a mission and we were doing above and beyond making a big impact. It’s not voters who said Renée is not doing a good enough job; they didn’t know.
This is my mission, my heart, and it’s very hard to leave. I’m terribly disappointed I don’t get to continue the mission this way. Honestly, it is bittersweet.
But I’m very proud of the slate of judges associated with the Republican Party this year. They are amazing judges, but not because they are Republican, but because they are good judges and work very hard. I don’t believe our system is working the way it should. I’m sure my opponent will be a very good judge – that is my hope and expectation – but the courthouse is going to be in a fair amount of instability for a while until they learn their job, a level of instability we shouldn’t have.
RR: What’s next for you?
Yanta: I don’t want to rush into a choice. There are a lot of possibilities, and I’m taking a look at all of them. It sounds hokey, but I’m waiting to see where God wants me to be.
As for PEARLS, two judges have taken over the judicial function, Judge Rosie Alvarado (438th) and Judge Angélica Jiménez (408th), and they have asked me to stay on the programming side. Besides, I’ve worked with some of these kids for four years, and they would feel like I was abandoning them if I left.
I will also be working with the new PEARLS Foundation, a nonprofit that will help keep the program financially strong. We need to work on funding, and we need a formal program director now.
In some ways, PEARLS Court may be even better now, with two judges and me with the experience to help with programming and being more active in telling PEARLS Court’s story.