The state of New Jersey got its first Muslim American Superior Court judge June 30, as Sohail Mohammed, a former engineer from Hyderabad, took his oath of office.
Following contentious confirmation hearings in the New Jersey State Senate, Mohammed, 47, who became interested in law after serving jury duty, began working July 1 in Passaic County Superior Courtâ€™s Family Division.
â€œI am deeply, deeply honored to be representing the two greatest democracies in the world: India and the U.S.,â€ Mohammed said, adding that he hoped to create a process in his courtroom that left peopleâ€™s dignity intact, regardless of whether they had won or lost.
Mohammed, who earned his law degree in night school at Seton Hall University while working for GEC-Marconi Electronic Systems, said he has already ruled on a number of adoption cases.
â€œYou see the kids in court, and there are such smiles on their faces. They are already saying, â€˜This is my mommy; this is my daddy,â€™â€ related Mohammed, who emigrated from India with his parents when he was 10.
â€œOne kid asked to touch the gavel. I lifted him up and he gave the gavel a loud bang. It was such a moving experience,â€ he said.
Mohammed refused to comment on his combative confirmation hearings, saying only, â€œIt was a process.â€ New Jersey Governor Chris Christie had nominated Mohammed for the post Jan. 14, and the attorney had told India-West in an earlier interview that he expected his nomination to be fast-tracked through the confirmation process.
At his confirmation hearing June 29, Mohammed was grilled extensively about his ties to radical Islamist groups, and his opinion of Sharia law. Republican state Senator Gerald Cardinale, asked Mohammed about the organization Hamas – defined by the U.S. as a terrorist group – and also asked him to define the term jihad.
Cardinale also asked Mohammed if he had ever objected to the term â€œIslamo terrorist.â€
Republican state Senator Joseph Kyrillos asked Mohammed why there was not more condemnation from Muslims about terrorism.
In an editorial, local columnist Bruce Lowry likened Mohammedâ€™s confirmation hearings to a â€œwitch hunt.â€
Jolsna John, president of the North American South Asian Bar Association, said the accusations levied against Mohammed were ridiculous.
â€œJust because your name is Mohammed does not mean youâ€™re a terrorist,â€ she said.
â€œSohail has done some really great work for our community,â€ said John, noting that Mohammed, post 9-11, had worked to build bridges between law enforcement and the Muslim American community.
NASABA reached out to Mohammed during his confirmation process, said John, who encouraged other South Asian Americans to apply for judgeships, adding that her organization could provide help and resources.
Cyrus McGoldrick, civil rights manager of the Council on American-Islamic Relations New York chapter, told India-West that the New Jersey state Senate had created a double standard during Mohammedâ€™s confirmation process.
â€œThis tells Muslim Americans that their service, their acts of patriotism, arenâ€™t as valuable as those of other Americans,â€ stated McGoldrick.
â€œMuslims are being told on the one hand â€˜acculturate within your larger community,â€™ yet our institutions and our people are being shut out,â€ he said.
Mohammed is a board member of the American Muslim Union and an executive board member of the New Jersey Bar Association. Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Mohammed represented more than 30 undocumented immigrants who were not affiliated with the attacks, but caught up in sweeps by federal agents. The father of three boys has trained the FBI on Islamic culture and arranged a job fair in New Jersey where young Muslims could apply for jobs with law enforcement agencies.
Mohammed, who formerly practiced immigration law in Clifton, New Jersey, told India-West he has disbanded his solo practice, handing his clients off to other attorneys.
â€œIt was really sad for me,â€ he said. â€œBut thereâ€™s a greater good to be done out there.â€