Fresh off a decisive victory, Democratic nominee for Dutchess County Family Court Judge Rachel Saunders reflects on her journey.
Saunders secured the Working Families Party ballot line for the November general election in a surprise move. She beat incumbent Denise Watson, the county family court judge since 2011, in a narrow 76-74 vote. The two will face off once more in November.
Being a community leader is what motivated Saunders to run for the position.
“You do not see judges in the community often, and that needs to change,” she said. “We do not see many judges with significant time as public interest lawyers, working within vulnerable communities towards finding solutions.”
She brings years of experience as an attorney-in-charge of the Dutchess County office for Legal Services of the Hudson Valley, leading an office of 15 to 20 staff.
In this role, Saunders trained and mentored staff to provide trauma-informed services for populations in crisis. Many of her clients were suffering from mental health issues or victims of domestic violence.
“All of the work I have done gave me insight into working with somebody in those moments of their life where things are in crisis,” she said.
Whether her clients are people who did not anticipate a crisis or who have dealt with crises throughout their life, Saunders worked with all to provide aid.
Coming from a Place of Empathy
Her childhood also prepared her for the role of Dutchess County Family Court Judge. She saw the flaws of the family court system firsthand as a child of divorce.
“The many years my parents spent in family court gave me the idea of feeling like you do not have any say,” she said. “Those two things combined inspired me to pursue a law degree.”
After graduating from Bard College, she received her law degree from Washington D.C.’s Howard University School of Law in 2001. After working in Afghanistan to assist in developing a legal system, she returned to the United States to continue working with vulnerable populations.
The key to being a good legal advocate for Saunders is to listen.
“It is all about listening, asking questions about the person’s life and what matters to them,” she said.
Within the last year, as many families suffered through personal and professional loss, Saunders saw how the family court system did not at times value what mattered to them.
“I watched people walk out of family court more traumatized than they were coming in,” she said. “The process should not be punishment. The process should be the family getting out of it what they need.”