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.