Saini-Donabed touts empathy, local values in judicial election
By ANDREW HARDY &
Judicial attorney Monika Saini-Donabed believes growing up in the local area, and being involved in the community, as well as having extensive courtroom experience, are some of the more important factors in her favor as she attempts to win an open bench seat at Merced County Superior Court.
“As a judge, you must have empathy, compassion and understanding for those you serve,” she told the Times. “As a Merced County native, I fully comprehend our local values and know the fabric of our community. With this and my significant experience with Merced County Superior Court, I was encouraged to serve. I was proud to take the next step in a long public service career.”
Saini-Donabed, a Livingston native, is facing two other judicial candidates in the March 5 Primary: Regina Adams, a Merced native and local attorney; and Carlos Dammeier, a state administrative law judge for an appeals board.
The three are chasing a rare open seat on the bench after Judge David Hood — a governor-appointed judge who held the same seat only for a short time — was reappointed to Stanislaus County Superior Court.
Superior court judges serve six-year terms and are elected by county voters on a nonpartisan ballot at a general election during even-numbered years. Vacancies occurring during those terms — due to retirements, deaths, or other departures —are refilled through appointment by the Governor.
Actually, the vast majority of superior court judges initially reach the bench via gubernatorial appointment.
However, Saini-Donabed was ready to challenge Hood after he was named to Merced Superior Court last summer. The governor had appointed Hood, but the judge would still have to go before the voters in the following election.
“The Governor’s appointee had little connection with Merced County,” she said. “He had spent most of his career in Southern California … This seemed like a poor choice because Merced County has many qualified and talented individuals who would have been excellent choices.”
Following Saini-Donabed’s announcement that she would run against Hood, the judge was suddenly reappointed in another county, making the position in Merced an “open seat.”
Despite the maneuver, and the entrance of other competitors, Saini-Donabed remains committed to the race.
“As a Merced County Superior Court Judicial Attorney for over seven years, I have served over 300 days as Judge Pro Tempore, presiding over small claims, traffic arraignments, traffic trials, unlawful detainers, and other civil matters,” she explained. “I work closely with the judges and assist them with questions and issues that arise in the cases they are handling. I research the law, understand the current state of the law, and advise judicial officers on their various options in deciding the issue.
“As a judge, you must have sound judgment and treat everyone with dignity while bringing emotional intelligence to the courtroom. When you are in court, people are going through a challenging period; you have to understand the somberness of the situation. You must maintain decorum and dignity and ensure everyone is heard. Whether they like the result or not, they feel it is fair, it was just, and they had their day in court. For over the six years I have been doing this, I strive to provide that day in and day out for anyone who appears before me.”
Before serving as Judicial Attorney, Saini-Donabed was a prosecutor with the Merced County District Attorney’s Office, where she worked major crimes such as child molestation, sexual assault, elder abuse, and homicides. At one point, she was simultaneously prosecuting over 100 special victims cases.
“I learned how to manage complex and stressful situations as I was working with victims going through their most painful experiences,” she said. “I had to navigate the system, navigate the law, navigate emotions, and discern the facts to come to a just result. I loved serving the community as a prosecutor, securing justice, and making my community safer.”
The candidate currently serves as the Merced County Bar Association Secretary, and has also served as the Merced County Women Lawyers Association Secretary. In 2022, she helped found the Merced Unity Bar Chapter and subsequently ran their mentorship program. She also founded the Merced County Indian Chamber of Commerce in 2019 and served as CEO until 2022.
Born, raised in valley
“I am from Merced County, born and raised,” states Saini-Donabed with obvious pride. “I grew up in Livingston and have lived in the City of Merced for 10-plus years. I have spent my career serving Merced County.”
Her family migrated from India to America in the late 1970s. They first settled in Yuba City and then made their way to Livingston in the early 1980s, following work. Her parents worked at Foster Farms, in the fields, and restaurants.
“I am the firstborn in America, and I embodied the American Dream for my family,” Saini-Donabed said. “I learned to speak English when I was enrolled in elementary school. My family instilled the values of hard work, dedication, loyalty, and sacrifice to achieve success. They taught me that with rights, we have responsibilities, and opportunities have to be created. I navigated through school and became the first attorney in my family. To put myself through school, I worked on an assembly line, delivered pizzas, and worked as a sales associate.”
In high school, Saini-Donabed served as senior class president, made the honor roll, and volunteered in the community. She pursued higher education at the University of California, Davis. While studying History and Political Science, she balanced various jobs, including assembly line worker, to fund her education. She served in student government in college as a member of the Gender and Sexuality Commission, which promoted awareness of issues pertaining to gender and sexuality as well as sexual assault.
While attending the University of California, Davis, School of Law, Saini-Donabed gained experience as a sexual assault counselor at Women Escaping a Violent Environment. She founded the Humanitarian Aid Legal Organization (HALO), which raised thousands of dollars to provide legal aid to those recovering from Hurricane Katrina. She also volunteered at King Hall’s Immigration Clinic, where she successfully advocated for local immigrants while assisting them with their citizenship applications.
Today, Monika Saini-Donabed and her husband, Joseph, are raising 3-year-old twins, Oliva and Oliver, in Merced. They have a dog, Winter, and a rescue cat, River.
When asked what she felt was the most important aspect of being a judge, she replied: “Creating a courtroom environment where fairness and justice are achieved with dignity and respect.
“The course is not predefined; all parties get a fair opportunity before an impartial judge. All cases must be looked at individually. Some cases need a softer touch, some need a firmer touch, and all need accountability.”
Serving Merced County residents has been a great privilege, Saini-Donabed said. “I have been honored to assist many people that needed help during the darkest time of their lives. I have also been privileged to work with many people that just want to make the lives of Merced residents better. I take my current and future role with great seriousness. I would be honored to continue to serve you as Superior Court Judge.”