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Justice Halim Dhanidina was recently elevated to California’s Courts of Appeal, making him the state’s most senior judge of Muslim faith. NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent David Tereshchuk talks with Dhanidina about engaging with supporters and critics alike, and setting an example for what it looks like to be a "Muslim judge" in the United States.
California marked a historic milestone this year when the state's first Muslim judge, Halim Dhanidina, was appointed to the California Court of Appeal. His position comes at a time of rising anti-Muslim sentiment across the country, with people judging him because of his religion and questioning his role in democracy.
PBS NewsHour Weekend special correspondent David Tereshchuk has the story.
A regular family man, to all intents and purposes. Halim Dhanidina spends much of the weekend with his children. But on working days, Dhanidina wields great authority over other people's lives and families as a judge. And he carries an uncommon distinction in America's courtrooms. He's a Muslim. One of very few among this country's judges.
I've been faced with people who would make ignorant or bigoted comments. And it was just something that you learn to deal with. It's very easy for people to say, to imagine what horrible things would happen if a Muslim is a judge, if there aren't any Muslim judges. By providing what I'm hoping is a counterexample, it sort of demystifies the subject.
America's most senior judge professing the faith of Islam had a substantial career in the California State court system – progressing to more elevated positions over time, and ending up here, sitting on the state Court of Appeal. Dhanidina was born in Chicago to Gujarati parents from the Indian subcontinent who'd already migrated to East Africa before coming to America. He attended college in California, gaining his law degree there, too. He then got a junior job in a District Attorney's office, soon becoming a prosecutor himself. A colleague from those days, Judge Andrew Kim, recalls him well.
Talking to him about cases, it was obvious that he was light-years ahead of me in terms of trying cases, his ability to connect with juries.
Dhanidina came to take the lead in prosecuting the kinds of crime to which California's Justice Department applies some no-nonsense labels.
The last two trial assignments I had were the "Hardcore Gang Division," which is I think what you're referring to, and then the "Major Crimes Division" was the one I went to after that.
Sounds like heavy duty?
You could say that. I mean Los Angeles does have something of a gang problem. I was in that unit for almost four years, handling any kind of violent crime, usually murders or attempted murders, that had a gang-related angle.
In 2012, Governor Jerry Brown made him a Superior Court judge. Initially at least, Dhanidina didn't think much about his being the first Muslim to be appointed to the bench in California. Then things changed when he was greeted with more than just congratulations.
There was some negative feedback, too, mostly on the Internet, certain websites that, I think it was sort of a third rail for them or the people who read their sites to have a Muslim appointed as a judge. And so really horrible things were being written about me.
The governor's office received slews of hate mail about Dhanidina, including threats to his safety. But the negative response did not stop Governor Brown from promoting him to the state Courts of Appeal in 2018, making him the country's highest-ranking Muslim judge. Undeterred by threats, Dhanidina is matter-of-fact about his role as both Muslim and judge.
Muslims can participate fully in the civic institutions of the United States with honor or even with distinction. And that your religious background doesn't need to be an obstacle to that.
He sees it as an important part of his job to go out among the community. Here, he's helping to preside at a bridge-building event that links Los Angeles' Jews with the city's Muslims.
You have all taken risks to be here clearly, fighting the traffic tonight was the first risk, everyone mentioned it.
His co-chair is Jewish — Rachel Andres.
He cares so much about the community, about Muslims, about Jews, about relationships, about fairness, about equality. I've gotten to know him over the past 4-plus years, when it's been a pretty difficult time in America and I feel like we've had each other's backs. After the Pittsburgh shooting, when I turned on my phone, my first email was from Halim. And that was so meaningful that he was the first person that reached out.
Dhanidina was brought up in the Ismaili branch of Islam, which emphasizes respect for other people's beliefs and traditions.
That was driven home by my parents and by, you know, other Ismailis, who have learned very early on that pluralism in society is a good thing, and diversity in society is a strength. And no better place to demonstrate that really than a place like the United States.
In today's United States, Dhanidina uses his position to reach out in perhaps unexpected directions. He has addressed a chapter of the conservative Federalist Society at the evangelical Christian Trinity Law School.
As someone who is Muslim, who was a lawyer and now is a judge and now is an appellate justice, it's part of my responsibility to, where there are opportunities, to try to educate people.
The Federalists at Trinity wanted to discuss a fear frequently voiced among conservatives – that Sharia Law, the body of religious law observed by many Muslims, might be gaining undue influence in America's courtrooms.
There's something about being Muslim that people believe makes you an adherent to this version of what's called "Sharia Law" that they know about from what they see on the news. You know, the horrible things done in the name of religion in other parts of the world.
Beheadings, you know, kidnappings. Boko Haram. Al Shabaab. Al Qaeda certainly. Hezbollah. Hamas. You name it. And so therefore people believe if a Muslim were in the legal system they would apply that type of law in our society. I've always felt that there are people who have these doubts in good faith, so I want to try to dispel them if I can.
Indeed, there is a persistent anti-Sharia movement afoot. Since 2010, over 200 bills have been introduced in 43 different state legislatures with the intent to ban Sharia Law from being invoked in any court. Thirteen states have passed these bills into law.
That issue, I think, is perhaps being used as sort of a wedge issue to try to isolate an insular minority or make people feel that American citizens who happen to be Muslim are foreign.
Dhanidina believes the fear behind these anti-Sharia moves is entirely baseless and that it's important that he, a Muslim judge, deliver that message.
I think the law applies the same to everyone regardless of their religion, regardless of their gender, and that the legal system is intended to be free from religious influence, it's a secular system.
So just how does the justice's background as a Muslim inform his decision making in court?
Within the religion of Islam, just like Judaism and Christianity, Buddhism, et cetera, there are ethical codes and probably not surprising, maybe surprisingly, they're the same across the board. Honesty. Integrity. Fairness. Justice. Mercy. These are concepts that all of the major religions that I'm aware of have in common. And to that extent, my religious upbringing or beliefs play a role because I think it is important to be honest, have integrity, and treat people fairly.
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