Great Read

Faith informs work of state's first Muslim judge

Judge values education, equality and community service -- which just so happen to stem from his Muslim faith

He's seen the Internet jibes. "The Sharia judge of Mexifornia." "Jihadist judge."

Not that he didn't see it coming. The governor's people called him one final time before announcing his appointment. "California's first Muslim judge," the news release would say. Was that OK?

Halim Dhanidina's first thought: "Of course." His second: "Maybe not." But by then he'd hung up the phone, and he couldn't take it back.

Some other ambitious young jurist might shrink from that "first Muslim" label, with its whiff of tokenism. Dhanidina, 42, has since opted to put it out front.

"I've stopped looking at it as a burden," he said.

The L.A. County Superior Court judge has given interviews about being a Muslim, attended dinners and headlined conferences — including one at a conservative Christian college titled "American Jurisprudence and Sharia Law: Assimilation or Accommodation." (Friends had said not to do it. He did.)

The after-hours appearances are tacked on to packed workdays. In his Long Beach courtroom recently, he wished a defendant in jail fatigues, "Best of luck." He overruled a prosecutor who heaved frustrated sighs. He cut in swiftly when a defendant started bellowing. "That's not called for," he said.

"There's a lot of people who think Muslims shouldn't be judges," Dhanidina said later. "No one who has ever been in my courtroom."

To those who know him, this insistent openness about his faith is more striking than his appointment to the bench. Dhanidina quickly rose to top posts at the L.A. County district attorney's office, and few were surprised when he made judge in 2012, before his 40th birthday.

But the Islamic part — some longtime colleagues said they didn't even know. "I can't think of it once coming up," said Geoffrey Rendon, who was a deputy district attorney with Dhanidina.

But what his friends didn't grasp was that he was a judge not despite his religion, but because of it.

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He was raised in Evanston, Ill., came west to go to Pomona College and later UCLA, and married a Californian. She is Roman Catholic, and his friends are Christian, Jewish, atheist — professionals like himself. In short, said Alan Jackson, a friend and his former boss in the district attorney's office, Dhanidina is "assimilated — as far as a Chicagoan can be assimilated here."

Unlike the Islamic background, the Midwestern one is conspicuous. Dhanidina is friendly in a clean-cut, corn-fed way, and still loyal to the Cubs. He's also every inch the Californian — a fan of beach volleyball, hip-hop and college football, and was a marathoner before a knee injury.

His parents left Tanzania for Illinois before he was born. The family is Ismaili, a Shiite tradition that represents a progressive strand within Islam.

Ismailis value education, gender equality, community service, international cooperation and civil institutions. A word Ismailis use a lot is "pluralism," and value the constitutional protections that preserve it. For centuries, they have lived under rule by foreign dynasties, hostile majorities, secular and colonial powers. Thousands were uprooted from ancestral homes. When Ismailis speak of legal safeguards for minorities, they are not speaking in the abstract.

Their tradition bears little resemblance to the media images of Muslims that bombarded Dhanidina through childhood. The Muslims he knew were "not here to change American society," he said. "They are here to be part of it. They buy in."

But Dhanidina, who is of Gujarati Indian heritage, learned early to keep quiet when people talked of Islam. "It was always in a context that would make me defensive," he said.

Even though he kept his faith in the background, now and then came a jarring moment: a colleague who talked of "towelheads"; a judge right after Sept. 11, 2001, who told jurors to be fair even if the appearance of someone in court called to mind the attackers. Dhanidina, feeling as raw as anyone that day, was slow to realize the judge was referring to him.

Another time, Dhanidina was a guest at a dinner party that Jackson had invited him to. A fellow diner denounced Muslims. Jackson said he wanted to crawl under the table. But Dhanidina had heard such comments all his life. He was surprised later when Jackson begged his forgiveness.

Dhanidina also knows how it feels to be accused of bigotry.

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He describes it as one of the most upsetting moments of his career.

It came in 2008, during a Watts double-murder case. All involved in the death-penalty trial, including the defendant and the victims, were black.

Three black jurors had been chosen when Dhanidina sought to dismiss a fourth. At that point, he had already exercised a dozen of his permitted exemptions — dismissing three whites, four Latinos and five blacks. Defense attorneys James Brewer and John Daley argued that Dhanidina wanted fewer blacks on the jury. They won.

Such a ruling against a prosecutor in Los Angeles is very rare — and potentially damning because it suggests Dhanidina acted from racial prejudice. For years after, he felt himself under a cloud. He braced himself to answer questions. He worried it would derail his judicial nomination.

To this day, Dhanidina insists that his objection to the juror was not racial. It was because the juror was a devotee of KPFK-FM.

The left-leaning radio station is part of the Berkeley-based Pacifica network, which was founded by a World War II conscientious objector. Dhanidina considered it a sure sign of anti-death-penalty bias. "I know because I listen to it," he said.

Neither Daley nor the judge accuse Dhanidina of genuine bias. It was just the heat of battle, Daley said. What's striking about the whole spat is how little it seems to have had to do with actual bigotry. Rather, it speaks of something more nuanced — the way racial controversy and court procedure have merged to produce a kind of theater of civil-rights conflict.

As for the KPFK juror, he proved everyone wrong: He voted for death.

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Gov. Jerry Brown has not had to publicly defend his state's first Islamic judge. But his office received hate mail, staff members say.

Dhanidina saw a no-win irony: U.S. Muslims were once called insular. Now, participating in public life, he was sometimes viewed as an infiltrator.

Being the face of Islam in California jurisprudence still felt strange. He drinks alcohol, doesn't pray by any formal plan and has tried to observe the monthlong fast at Ramadan — but usually doesn't. He wasn't sure he knew enough about his own religion to speak for it in public.

But it struck him that if strident voices dominate, moderates must speak out. "If I don't, who will?" he said.

So he told audiences of his faith in God and secular government, and how these complement each other. He said he has been surprised by the response, not just from Muslims, but from people of other faiths.

"They said, it's so nice that someone can feel comfortable just talking about religion," Dhanidina said. "So often it is used as a way of dividing people. Or as a bludgeon. It can feel like a topic it is better to avoid."

His courtroom offers further lessons in pluralism.

Defendants cross class lines. In his court recently were a young woman with green hair, a filthy man who might have been asleep and a literal untouchable — a well-dressed man with hand-foot-and-mouth disease who sat apart.

The bellowing defendant was acting as his own lawyer. He wore an untucked shirt, muttered and flipped pages, wasting hours in legal minutiae. Dhanidina was patient. When the man grew belligerent, he tried flattery: "We have procedures we have to follow, and you seem like you" — microscopic pause — "care about procedures," he said. The defendant nodded vigorously.

Dhanidina hears up to 50 cases daily, mostly misdemeanors, and sometimes seems to hardly breathe. But don't call his work mundane: Defendants may seem "indistinguishable from dozens of others," Dhanidina said. "But to them, I may be the only judge they ever see."

His crisp style in court wins praise from defenders, prosecutors and judges, even his old antagonist Daley.

"I didn't realize he was the first Muslim judge," the defense attorney said. "That's a hard thing to undertake. I wish him well with it."

jill.leovy@latimes.com

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