Judges Rule

What does it take to be a judge? Karen Sage has the answers.
By John Perritano
A female judge with blonde hair poses between two flags.
Judge Karen Sage presides in Travis County, Texas. She’s also president of the National Association of Women Judges.

Life is funny sometimes. One day, you’re a theater major in college thinking that all the world’s a stage. The next, you’re administering justice in a Texas courtroom. How do such things happen? Karen Sage wonders about this. Sage is a district court judge in the Lone Star State, and the story of her road to the bench describes one fascination leading to another.

“I didn’t know I was going to be in law until the very end of college,” she says. “I was a theater arts undergrad. As I was finishing that degree, I was talking to some of my professors. One of them suggested I pursue a legal career. At that time, I thought about doing it because I thought I wanted to go into entertainment law. That was my initial goal.”

After a career as a civil trial attorney and later a federal prosecutor, Sage decided she wanted to be a judge. In some states, the governor appoints judges. In others, voters elect them. Such was the case in Texas’s Travis County when Sage sought a district court judgeship in the 299th District. She won, taking the bench in 2011. Her current term ends in 2026.

Sage has good insights for anyone who might want to become a judge. Here’s some of what she told Your Hot Job.

“The judge is the referee. The judge has to make sure that both sides are following the rules.”

Court proceedings, by their very nature, are confrontational. During a trial, lawyers advocate on behalf of their clients or the community. As each side makes its case, it’s the judge’s responsibility to make sure everyone follows the rules. Those rules are known as the law. “You can’t play favorites,” Sage says. “I’m mostly letting the lawyers try their cases and making sure they follow all the rules correctly. If I’ve done that, then the right outcome should happen.”

Trials can be decided in two ways. In a so-called bench trial, the judge listens to the evidence, then renders a verdict. In a trial in which a jury is asked to decide a case, it’s the judge’s responsibility to instruct jurors on the appropriate laws and facts they must consider. Among other things, judges rule on what people can say in court, or what type of evidence both sides can present during the case.

“Study hard. Your grades matter.”

Yes, Sage says, grades do matter. But, she cautions, it’s also important to take classes in college that are interesting and fun. “Everything you need to know about law, they will teach you in law school,” she says. “You should really spend your undergraduate education learning something that you feel is important. It might be a subject you enjoy or want to know more about. I value my humanities background and my theater background.”

Here’s a little secret, too, Sage says: If you take classes you like, you’ll get good grades. “My background in theater was great for becoming a trial attorney. I became very comfortable in front of an audience.”

“It’s so important to have diversity on the bench.”

Courtrooms are the great equalizer, where people from all walks of life seek some measure of justice, whether in civil or criminal cases. As a consequence, Sage fervently believes courtrooms, including judges, should reflect society’s different communities. She encourages women, people of color, and people with diverse backgrounds and experiences to consider a career as a judge. As president of the National Association of Women Judges, Sage works tirelessly to make sure that happens.

“We need to have a bench that reflects the people before it,” she says. “All the different ways that people identify in a community, we need to represent all of those communities on the bench in order to really make sure everyone in the community is getting the justice they deserve.”