Meet the First Muslim Judge of California
By Saher Baloch
Los Angeles, CA
There is silence in Superior Court Judge Halim Dhanidina’s courtroom in Long Beach as he hands out judgment to a man found driving without a license.
As the proceedings continue after lunch, the judge continues to speak to the man in monosyllabic but firm replies. It doesn’t matter to the people inside the courtroom what faith the judge belongs to, but it is a different matter once he is outside it.
Halim Dhanidina, 42, is the first ever Muslim judge in the state of California. Though people outside seem surprised to read about him in the newspapers in Los Angeles, the judge seems to have accepted the praise, encouragement and brickbats that came with the confirmation of his appointment.
Comments on the Internet ranged from calling him a 'Jihadist judge' — as the Los Angeles Times quoted in its report — to a 'Sharia judge'.
Seated behind a big black desk in his office, with the wall behind him displaying drawings by his two children, Halim, in a crisp white shirt with a yellow tie and grey pants, says he didn’t know he was the first one from his community to be a judge in LA County’s Superior Court or in the entire state.
"It was something I learned about only when I filed my application," he says. "For there to be only one Muslim judge in a state as big and diverse as California came as a surprise to me."
"My peers didn’t notice it until it was mentioned in the news reports," Halim adds. "It was meaningful to the governor’s office because they wanted to publicize it."
His appointment, which came on a Friday in May 2012, elicited all kinds of response. In the ensuing days, he received emails, phone calls from Europe, Africa and Asia, congratulating him and wishing him the best.
"I didn’t know that apart from myself, my appointment would be momentous for so many people all over the world," Halim says.
Continuing, he says, "[The appointment] was a long, stressful saga for me. Part of it is due to the fact that I had to apply under two different governors. The first governor I applied under was Arnold Schwarzenegger (in 2009) and it wasn’t until he ended his term and Governor Jerry Brown took over (in 2012) that my application gained momentum and I was appointed relatively quickly".
Belonging to the Ismaili community, Halim is married to a Roman Catholic and is quite open to discussing questions related to religion that come his way. Halim's parents were the first in their family to immigrate from Tanzania to the United States in the mid-60s.
Born and brought up in Chicago, Illinois, Halim went to school in Southern California and later studied international relations at the Claremont University’s Pomona College.
There are no judges or lawyers in his family so it was a bit of a struggle to find a foothold, he adds.
"Also, since 9/11, there is a natural distrust in certain segments of the population against Muslims. Particularly in the area of law, the presence of a Muslim judge makes a lot of people very uncomfortable," Halim says.
"People think a Muslim judge will bring Sharia to the court. So, the first question that comes to their mind is, 'Okay, is he an American judge or is he a Muslim judge?' Frankly, I leave my faith outside the courtroom, just like anyone else in the United States," Halim adds.
There were times, he adds, when his family and friends didn’t trust his call to become a judge. "They thought I was being unrealistic to expect in a post-9/11 US to even think of that. I was more hopeful because I was born and brought up here, and had imbibed the values of a US citizen."
Initially, Halim wanted to be a diplomat or work for the United Nations but he "accidentally fell into criminal law" while aspiring to study international law. UCLA’s law school didn’t have interaction with the kind of employers practicing public international law, as most of that is in the East Coast.
He ended up at the public defender’s office in LA but wasn’t offered a position. Later, he applied for a district attorney’s office and ended up spending fourteen years there.
"I’m glad that the other stint didn’t work out. Looking at my initial graph, I keep telling my students to keep an open mind. It could be that the job that you want to do is the one that you don’t even know about," Halim adds.
Though Halim never faced any challenges from his colleagues, he did get a lot of attention once he got appointed as a judge. A lot of people thought of his appointment as "an answer to the barriers and struggles they faced," he adds.
Part of the euphoria surrounding him, he says, comes from the belief that many people thought they would never see the day.
Does he find it patronizing to be asked only about his faith and not his accomplishments and talents that he brings to the table?
"That’s just the reality of the times we live in," he says. "It disturbed my father because he asked how come they don’t ask any of the other judges about their religion and how it affects their job. He has a point, but I don’t find it patronizing."
"Any time you are the first of anything that’s what is going to be interesting," Halim says "I mean Barack Obama is the president but we know him as the African-American president because he is the first one and that makes news."
"May be there would be another Muslim judge in California followed by so many that it won’t be worthy of news," he adds. "This is something you prepare yourself for as all the minority groups go through that."
Halim also says that part of the struggle to find a foothold in the US is the immigrant story that some people keep telling themselves.
"The generation before was not as experimental in trying out different jobs. Some of them are not as involved in the community which leaves them isolated," he says. "Those who stay in the system, thrive."
"The younger generation is quite clued in and investing in diverse professions such as politics, arts and journalism apart from the tried and tested ones such as medicine, business and engineering," Halim adds.
Halim believes that the courts all over the US are "extremely diverse". He also believes that in the coming few years there will many more judges after him, "probably a female judge from the community, and by then people won’t be as concerned about her faith." - Dawn