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As first Muslim American judge, Quraishi joins long line of trailblazers

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Zahid N. Quraishi is sworn in to testify before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing n Washington, D.C., April 28, 2021. Tom Williams/Pool via REUTERS

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(Reuters) - Zahid Quraishi made history on Thursday when he was confirmed by the U.S. Senate to be the first Muslim American Article III judge.

All I can say is, it’s about time.

Considering Islam is the third-largest religion in the United States after Christianity and Judaism, it feels shocking that it’s taken so long to for a Muslim American to attain an Article III judgeship.

There are currently 870 such judges, spread out amongst the U.S. Supreme Court, circuit courts, district courts and the Court of International Trade.

Of course, the federal judiciary isn’t exactly known for being in the vanguard of diversity. According to a March 2020 report by the American Constitution Society, 73% of active Article III judges are white and 66% are men.

Quraishi, a former U.S. magistrate judge and partner at Riker Danzig Scherer Hyland & Perretti who is of Pakistani ancestry, will serve as a U.S. district judge in the District of New Jersey.

He takes his place in a distinguished line of judicial barrier-breakers that begins with Jacob Trieber, the first Jewish federal judge.

In 1900, Trieber ascended to the bench in (of all places) the Eastern District of Arkansas.

Up to that point, the judiciary from its founding in 1789 consisted entirely of white, Christian men.

Born in Prussia, Trieber was 13 when his family immigrated to America, eventually settling in Helena, Arkansas, according to a University of Arkansas at Little Rock Law Review article.

He “read the law” with a former justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court, launched his own firm, founded a bank, was elected to various local offices and served as U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Arkansas prior to his judicial appointment by President William McKinley.

In 1903, he became “the first judge to squarely hold that federal law protects blacks from racial discrimination in employment,” according to the law review article.

That decision in Hodges v. United States was reversed by the U.S. Supreme Court, but vindicated 65 years later, when the high court in 1968 overturned its holding in the case.

The next barrier to fall came in 1934. That’s when Florence Allen was appointed by Franklin D. Roosevelt to the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, becoming the first woman to hold an Article III judgeship.

The daughter of an Ohio professor, Allen got her law degree in 1913 from New York University School of Law. She graduated second in her class but received no job offers in New York, according to her biography published by the Supreme Court of Ohio. (By the way, all you white-shoe Manhattan firms, you missed out big time.)

Allen returned to Cleveland, where she practiced law and became active in the Women’s Suffrage Party. In 1920, she was elected to a judgeship on the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas, becoming the first woman elected to any judicial office in the United States.

Two years later, she was elected to the Ohio Supreme Court, another first.

On March 23, 1934, the U.S. Senate unanimously confirmed Allen to a seat on the 6th Circuit, where she served for 32 years, including as chief judge in 1958 – 1959.

The nation’s first Black Article III judge was William Hastie, a 1930 Harvard Law graduate who joined the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration as a race relations advisor and in 1933 became assistant solicitor for the Department of Interior.

In 1937, Roosevelt appointed him to the bench in U.S. District Court for the Virgin Islands.

In a Truman Library oral history interview in 1972, Hastie explained how this came to pass.

As part of his Interior Department job, he said, he’d been handling work related to the Virgin Islands.

At the same time, FDR was impressed that the British in their colonies were appointing Black lawyers to local judicial offices.

The president, "I am told, inquired of the then-Governor Cramer, what he thought about such a possibility in the Virgin Islands,” Hastie said. The governor was “good enough to enthusiastically espouse the idea,” and recommended the 33-year-old Hastie for the position.

The judgeship had a four-year term. Hastie served for two but left in 1939 to become dean of Howard University School of Law.

He returned to the Virgin Islands to serve as its first Black governor from 1946 to 1949. President Harry S Truman appointed him in 1949 to the 3rd Circuit, making Hastie the first Black circuit court judge as well.

He served for 21 years, including from 1968 to 1971 as chief judge.

There are more firsts. Reynaldo Guerra Garza, the son of Mexican immigrants, in 1961 became the first Latino judge, appointed by President John F. Kennedy to the Southern District of Texas.

According to the Los Angeles Times, Garza often recalled that JFK in an Oval Office meeting told him: “It’s up to you to do a good job so others can follow.”

Garza went on to become the first Mexican-American circuit court judge, appointed by President Jimmy Carter to the 5th Circuit in 1979. He died in 2004.

The first Asian-American judge was Herbert Young Cho Choy, appointed by President Richard Nixon to the 9th Circuit in 1971.

A 1941 Harvard Law School graduate, Choy served in the U.S. Army Judge Advocate General’s Corps before entering private practice in Hawaii. One of his partners, Hiram Fong, went on to represent the state as a U.S. Senator and recommended him for the judgeship.

Choy spent 33 years on the bench before his death in 2004.

The first openly gay judge was Deborah A. Batts, who was confirmed in 1994 to the Southern District of New York.

In her Feb. 5, 2020 obituary, The New York Times wrote that “her sexual orientation, about which she was open, was not an issue, and the Senate confirmed her on a voice vote.”

In 1994, Batts told The New York Law Journal, "I'm a mother. I'm an African-American. I'm a lesbian. I'm a former professor. If people assume anyone of these aspects is going to predominate, it would create a problem.”

And indeed, for all the richly diverse perspectives that these trailblazers brought to the bench, their most important mandate was to be judges, to follow their oath to “administer justice without respect to persons, and do equal right” by all who came before them.

Suffice to say, Quraishi is in outstanding company as he takes his seat as the first Muslim American judge in history.

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Opinions expressed are those of the author. They do not reflect the views of Reuters News, which, under the Trust Principles, is committed to integrity, independence, and freedom from bias.

Jenna Greene writes about legal business and culture, taking a broad look at trends in the profession, faces behind the cases, and quirky courtroom dramas. A longtime chronicler of the legal industry and high-profile litigation, she lives in Northern California. Reach Greene at jenna.greene@thomsonreuters.com

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