Bianca Martinez Headshot
Bianca Martinez

Melissa Saenz: A better system

Updated: Jun 12, 2024

The Honorable Melissa Saenz is a San Antonio native currently serving as a judge for Bexar County Court at Law No. 2. Prior to being elected to the bench in November 2022, Saenz practiced criminal law for 12 years. Within this time, she gained experience working as both a defense attorney and Assistant District Attorney’s Office at the Bexar County District Attorney’s Office. Melissa is a product of Southwest High School in San Antonio, Texas. She credits Southwest High School for helping her form well rounded views and making it easier for her to understand the diverse backgrounds of others. After graduating in the top 10% of her class, Melissa attended the University of Texas at San Antonio and later received her J.D. from Texas Tech Law School. 

  Melissa shared that she never saw herself running for office or as an attorney. It was not until her time in undergrad that Melissa would take a deeper look at politics in her Texas politics class. She explains that, at first, she did not like the course and found it difficult to understand certain aspects of Texas law. 

  It was her American Criminal Justice course that would ignite a deep appreciation for and interest in the political and legal profession. She credits much of this to the professor, Kim Keller, whom Saenz considered to be her role model at the time. Seeing an educated woman attorney and professor was inspiring when, at the time, there were significantly fewer women in the legal profession. Another woman in the legal field she looked up to was a supervisor of hers who advised her to never be afraid to call someone a liar: “If the facts don’t make sense, do not be afraid to call them out.” She reveals that when she first started her career, she was very shy. It was these words and support from her supervisor that helped her take on an entirely different attitude. Her shyness was once one of the biggest barriers in her career, and with the help of her supervisor, she felt okay with being aggressive and confrontational, when necessary, in her job. Melissa also shared that it was not until she became an adult that she was able to fully understand the hard work her parents put in throughout her childhood, naming her parents as her role models as well. 

  Upon graduating law school, she worked at the district attorney’s office, an environment that, at the time, was far from diverse, with very few women and Latinos, according to Melissa. She believes diversity is critical in environments like our court system and that the lack thereof can limit how much one can identify with the people in the court. Having diversity helps one to “understand the struggles people go through to survive and that not everyone needs prison, some people just need help,” said Saenz. 

 When working at the district attorney’s office for 12 years, Saenz assumed the position of felony first chair, one of the highest positions aside from a division chief. She remembers sometimes having little discretion in her work at the district attorney’s office. With her hands tied, she realized there was only so much one could do to get justice—the ultimate goal. After serving as felony first chair, she embarked on her campaign for County Court at Law No. 2. “Me running is not about me, the community deserves a better system in place,” she says. Melissa admits that she had no idea what she was doing when she first launched her campaign. While running for office, Melissa was forced to become her own campaign manager, finding events to attend, neighborhoods to block walk, and communities to meet. She believes one can absolutely do it on their own if needed. 

  One of the greatest issues facing Melissa’s community is homelessness. In her role as a county court judge, she sees a lot of misdemeanors where individuals are receiving a conviction or being placed on probation. The problem with being on probation while also being homeless, is that the individual may not have the money or means to complete the programs required of them. “The ultimate thing that needs to be done is to get the unhoused some kind of housing to get them on their feet,” she says. She states she doesn’t know if there is an actual way to correct all of this, and with the rise in homelessness, Saenz claims that it becomes an issue of essentially criminalizing homelessness and poverty. These kinds of circumstances are given consideration when determining the outcome of cases to ensure the work she does is fair. She believes there must be a mixture of holding people accountable and having compassion.

Melissa urges aspiring lawyers to find a healthy balance and give themselves the self-care needed when doing this work. When speaking about law school, she shared that one should not think anyone has all the answers: “Don’t be intimidated by others; there is no reason why a person is better than another. Melissa’s greatest accomplishment was her work in putting violent and dangerous offenders behind bars, saying “that is the greatest work I have been able to do.”

Judge Saenz behind the bench.
					console.log( 'Code is Poetry' );