America’s Foremost Muslim Judge

America’s Foremost Muslim Judge                            

By David Tereshchuk

It wasn’t exactly a surprise for Halim Dhanidina to get a call in 2012 from California Governor Jerry Brown’s office saying he’d been picked to serve as a judge on the state’s Superior Court.

Dhanidina already had an impressive track-record as a DA in Los Angeles, gaining kudos for sending to prison what the state’s Justice Department calls ‘hard-core gang’ criminals.

What did come as a surprise was being asked if he objected to the Governor’s office publicizing his appointment as California’s first-ever Muslim judge.  “I was just overwhelmed to have the honor to be appointed”, Dhanidina told me recently, looking back during an interview for the PBS NewsHour Weekend. “When the Press Secretary asked me that question, I felt ‘yeah sure, whatever you want’. It didn’t really strike me as a particularly onerous request”.

He truly hadn’t expected the negative reaction that would greet his appointment, along with the many congratulations. It came mainly from the wilder reaches of the internet – and it was vicious and hateful. Among the milder epithets applied to him were “Jihad Judge” or “Sharia Judge”. The hate-mail and aggressive postings have abated since his initial appointment, but never entirely gone away – with what Dhanidina calls occasional “flare-ups” arising, as well as threats to his safety that need investigation by state law-enforcement agencies.

In the summer of 2018 the Governor elevated Dhanidina to the state Court of Appeal, making him now, it’s believed, the highest ranking Muslim judge in all of America. [The religious affiliation of judges is not generally a matter of official record, and it is difficult to survey every single level through Federal, State, County and City jurisdictions. But the NewsHour Weekend is confident there is no other Muslim any position as or more senior in thos country’s judiciary.]

Dhanidina was born in Chicago to Gujarati parents from the Indian subcontinent, who’d already migrated to East Africa before coming to America. His family is part of the Ismaili branch of Islam, noted for its liberal and tolerant approaches to belief and practice.

Tolerance, he told me, “was driven home by my parents and by other Ismailis, who have learned that pluralism in society is a good thing, and diversity in society is a strength. And there’s no better place to demonstrate that, really, than the United States – which, at least at the time, was very welcoming to immigrants and people from different backgrounds.”

He has an outgoing attitude to what activities constitute his duties as an Appellate Justice. He makes a point of getting involved in community efforts to encourage ethnic and religious tolerance. I watched him co-chair an event mounted by a Los Angeles group called “New Ground, dedicated to bridge-building between the city’s Muslim and Jewish populations. His co-chair was Jewish – Rachel Andres, who told me: “Halim has quite a deep sense of who he is as a human, as a Muslim, as a decent human being and as a judge. He takes the responsibility he’s got very much to heart”.

The Justice also appears before possibly more surprising audiences. He addressed the conservative Federalist Society’s chapter at the law school of the evangelical Christian Trinity University. He was asked to discuss a fear frequently voiced among US conservatives – that Sharia Law, the body of religious law observed by many Muslims, might be gaining undue influence in America’s courtrooms.

I too asked him about it, in light of some evident anti-Sharia sentiment being organized politically across the country. Since 2010, over two hundred 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 such bills into law.

Dhanidina told me “That issue, I think, is perhaps being used as sort of a wedge issue to try to isolate a minority, or make people feel that American citizens who happen to be Muslim are foreign – with foreign ways and foreign values”.

The Justice is adamant that the fears being expressed about Sharia Law are entirely baseless. He told me: “I don’t really perceive, and I don’t know any judges who perceive, there to be a real threat to American law being usurped by Sharia law or any other foreign legal system … there is this drive I think to pass these laws in different states but it’s to address a problem that in my opinion doesn’t really exist”.

I asked Justice Dhanidina to sum up just what influence his Muslim faith might exert on his decision-making in the courtroom. He said: “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, treat people fairly.”