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Family Court Judge in West Texas Relies on Life Experiences

District Judge Sara Kate Billingsley remains exuberant in a field most judges find debilitating and how she manages it is a complex story about her mother's example, a support system of friends, a near-death experience and other things.

The Odessa American reports born in Hobbs, New Mexico, and living there until her parents divorced when she was 11, the 446th Judicial District family law jurist attended Bonham Middle School, spent a year at The Hockaday School in Dallas and graduated from Midland Trinity before studying musical theater at TCU.

Seeing that show business was hyper-competitive, she transferred to the University of Texas of the Permian Basin to major in marketing and enrolled at the University of Oklahoma College of Law in Norman, where she contracted pneumonia and acute respiratory distress syndrome in the spring of her first year. "I was taking 57 breaths a minute because my lungs wouldn't expand," said Billingsley, 40.

"I was in a medically induced coma for a month and the doctor told my mom to say her goodbyes because I wouldn't survive. After 10 days, he said I had a 51 percent chance."

Billingsley went to Oklahoma City for six months of rehab to relearn how to walk, talk, feed herself and brush her hair, but worked her way out in seven days and a month later was back in class.

"It's surreal to wake up and a month of your life is gone," she said. "My mom wrote a journal for me of what happened in the world each day."

Billingsley found inspiration in Jeremiah 29:11, which says, "For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future."

"I'm here to do great things for people and make a difference in a positive way," she said. "My grandma and great-grandma were waitresses and I'll never forget where I came from. We were poor in Hobbs. Do you know how hard it is to be poor in Hobbs?

"My mom worked at a flower shop and I waited tables at The Kettle on Highway 80 all through high school. I was a singing waitress and sang the 'Java Jive' song: 'I love coffee, I love tea, I love the java jive and it loves me.' People sat in my section to see what my performance would be that day."

Between her second and third law school years, Billingsley studied international law at Brasenose College in the Oxford University system in England. Graduating with honors at Norman, she returned to Odessa to join the Todd, Barron, Thomason & Hudman law firm for two and a half years till opening her own practice in 2010.

Somewhat surprisingly appointed three years ago by Gov. Greg Abbott after the Texas Legislature created the new court, Billingsley got all the family law cases from the other four courts and expects to have adjudicated 9,000 through the end of this year with 1,500 new ones having been filed from January through August, she said.

Abbott overrode the Ector County Republican Executive Committee's recommendation of attorney John Cliff over Billingsley in a 7-6 vote. She was elected without opposition to a four-year term in 2016.

Her mother is Peggy Dean, who is a CPA. Her stepfather is CPA Kenneth Dean. She has a stepbrother and a stepsister and is a member of St. Barnabas' Episcopal Church.

Noting Dean's divorce from Ron Billingsley, now of Cloudcroft, New Mexico, and the judge's own divorce nearly three years ago after three years of marriage, Billingsley said those experiences enhanced her empathy. "Most days are tough in here," she said of her court.

"It's sometimes a rude awakening when I hear how unkind people can be to each other and their children. I heard an awful case today that's been passed down through many judges for years. It's highly volatile with multiple children, but we set it for a final hearing.

"That's why I love doing family law. I get to make a huge difference. Conferring with the children, you find out what makes them tick, what they want in life and where they want to be. Little kids tell you all kinds of things, sometimes things you don't want to hear. I'm not certain you can win in family court, but you should also not have to lose."

Explaining that she strives for consistency, Billingsley said, "I probably didn't get the ruling right if one side leaves really happy and the other side is really mad.

"If both sides leave a little miffed, I probably got it right. My message is one of hope: take care of the kiddos, take care of yourselves and we'll figure the rest out later. My biggest advice is just to be kind. I do the very best I can each day and then leave it at the door."

She does that in part with her cooking, taking Facebook orders for "Creations by Sara Kate" and catering weddings, parties and other events. And she leans on friends including Dr. Sanjay Patel, Odessa policeman Ian Kapets, court administrator Michelle Conn, attorney Julie Prentice and former client Sam Ares.

Other outlets are playing golf, watching the Oklahoma Sooners play football, traveling to Italy and Egypt, scuba diving off the Turks-Caicos Islands in the Bahamas and driving her Lincoln Navigator and BMW i8 sports car. Billingsley will sing in the Permian Playhouse's Nov. 8 production of "Divas and Desserts Gone Country."

Doing CrossFit training and using the Keto Diet of high fats, moderate proteins and low carbohydrates, she has lost 100 pounds since 2014. "I need to lose another 25," she said.

Billingsley said her staff fortunately doesn't mind the long days that can run past 9 p.m. "Last year the county bought out my bailiff Ruben Deanda's nine weeks of comp time," she said.

Prentice said the judge blends compassion with professionalism. "Sara is the best person I know," Prentice said.

"She is so caring and professional that she makes the biggest difference in people's lives. It's amazing to watch her work. She's just as kind and caring as she was when she took the bench."

Prentice recounted seeing Billingsley pick up a lost dog outside her house in the middle of the night and take it to the vet so they could find the microchip and get it to its owner.

"Sara handles the legal aspects of her cases with 100 percent accuracy and precision and goes a step further to find out about people's lives for the betterment of them and their children," the lawyer said. "She is the smartest attorney I know and she makes the best lasagna in the world. She deals with incredible amounts of stress and handles it with awesome poise, hearing good people at their absolute worst. It's the most stressful job in Ector County."

Ares, whose company Butch's Rathole & Anchor Service was represented by Billingsley when she was in private practice with more than 800 clients, said she "is a get it done person, a hard worker who takes care of her business, and she's doing a good job as judge.

"She clears up her docket," Ares said. "She worked for us for three or four years and was ruthless in getting stuff done. When you gave her something, she didn't sit on it for three or four months."

Ares said Billingsley "was not only my lawyer, she is my friend.

"Sara Kate is a good person," he said. "I like good people. She loves her job. You have to be happy to put up with the courthouse."

Most of Billingsley's cases concern child custody, but some of them are adoptions and property divisions in big estates. "The only fun thing we do is adoptions," she said.

"Last year we did 100. I did a lot of transactions, corporate law, asset management and commercial litigation in my private practice, which has helped me with the multi-million dollar community estates we've had to go through."

Asked what she expects from lawyers, she said, "My expectations are pretty high.

"They need to come to court ready to go and never misrepresent anything. I don't like it when people make misrepresentations. We have a huge docket, so I don't have time for people to be ill-prepared."

Another duty is to issue protective orders. "The attorneys must act appropriately," said Billingsley, adding that she is a proponent of prenuptial and postnuptial agreements.

"Clients can get carried away and I look to the lawyers to rein in their people. Greed and grief make sane people crazy."

Her catering specialties are charcuterie boards, handmade meatballs, tenderloins, cheeses, fruits, meats and crackers. "It's something I can do that makes people smile and not be mad at me," she said.

"When I have a bad day, I roll out the pasta and cook something."

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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