Dissent, Diversity, Education: What Constitutes Democracy for the First Muslim Judge in California  


On February 15, the Claremont Journal of Law and Public Policy (CJLPP) hosted Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Halim Dhanidina (PO ‘94), the first Muslim judge to be appointed in the state of California. Amidst a political moment fraught with grassroots mobilization against the Trump administration, Dhanidina emphasized the crucial role that dissent plays in American democracy at large, and in the judicial system in particular.


“People tend to see dissent as symptomatic of something that is going wrong in the society, but I think it is probably the opposite,” he said.  “You don’t realize how important [dissent] is until you start to lose that ability and that right.”


For Dhanidina, it is the plurality of contradicting and overlapping opinions, and the freedom to express them, that constitute the core of a true democracy. In the American judicial system, the standard of due process requires that “both sides have an equal chance to be heard, to make their case and to persuade.” On the appellate level, this plurality is formalized in the form of written dissents, through which judges who disagree with the majority opinion “have an equal chance to be heard, to make their case and to persuade.” These dissents are not forgotten, but remain a live part of the discourse — they often form the basis for future judicial debates, and sometimes even overturn past decisions.


Dhanidina believes that this process is critical to the credibility of the judicial system, because it indicates that the system “is still listening and still considering your ideas and your point of view, even it is not eventually adopted.” He sees public confidence as essential to democracy because “once we start to lose the confidence of the public, then institutions don’t mean anything any more.”


A conversation with the first Muslim judge in California naturally turns to the topic of diversity. Dhanidina defines diversity as another crucial factor in the credibility of an institution — especially in a country as diverse as the United States. Because most bias is subconscious or implicit, Dhanidina stresses the importance of diversifying the legal profession to cover all forms of socioeconomic, racial, religious, and geographic identities. This ensures that different points of view are represented in the judicial system, and “makes the people who use the system feel more comfortable that their decisions are being handled irrespective of their identities.”


Though he refrained from commenting on the impact of the Trump presidency on the acceptance of certain identities, Dhanidina claims that the state of diversity has improved over time, especially in the California state system. Commending Governor Brown for his efforts in diversifying the bench, he notes that the justice system has been more responsive in ways to certain underrepresented communities than it has in the past. “Most people involved in the justice system– I’ve been in the court since 1988– will tell you that it’s a noticeable difference.” He credits this to a younger generation that is more comfortable with diversity and more aware of implicit bias.


Dhanidina’s own experience as a student at Pomona College had awakened him to his own biases, “I knew that theoretically, people from all different backgrounds can be whatever they want and can be really really bright, smart people, [but] because I wasn’t taking classes with people from different backgrounds, it was more of an esoteric belief than an experience. Coming to school here, [I realized] that all this brainpower is coming from people from every background that you can think of.”


When asked how he checks his own implicit biases in the courtroom, Dhanidina expressed gratitude for his geographic location in California. He credits the diversity of the region for the diversity of identities that he sees in his court. Working in a high-volume court, Dhanidina is able to compare similar fact patterns involving people of different backgrounds. Judges in California are also required to regularly take courses on biases; one common trick that judges use to check their own bias is to imagine how they would make a decision if the identities of the parties were switched. Dhanidina takes one step further to ensure that his court is an inclusive one,


“One of the things that I also force myself to do is a funny trick that I don’t think a lot of people do…. I will always give my best effort to say a name, even though it looks like that it is going to be hard. If I am unsure, I will always ask, how does your client like to say his or her name?”


Remembering his time as a prosecutor in front of judges who avoided calling him by his unfamiliar name, Dhanidina makes a conscious effort to make people of all backgrounds feel welcomed in the courtroom. He is cognizant of the diversity of the Long Beach community, where he sits, noting that his “is not a courtroom just for people who are from one background.”


“If a judge doesn’t pay much effort in learning your name, it doesn’t seem like that the judge would pay the appropriate amount of time focusing on your case. So I never want to send out that message.”


Raised by two educators, Dhanidina believes that efforts to diversify the proportion of politically active citizens must begin with proper civic education. He claims that alienation from political engagement and low voter turnout begins from a young age, as a result of the failure of public education to incorporate civics into everyday life.


“Civics is not the class you take as a prerequisite, take a multiple choice test and you’re done with it. When people feel that our legal system, our Constitution, our judicial system, are not relevant to them… they in many ways are disenfranchising themselves by disengaging from a government and a society that’s meant to work for them.”


Dhanidina has been involved in the LA Superior Court’s Teen Court and the California Supreme Court’s Power of Democracy programs, which are designed to educate youth about the American political system. He agrees with Justice Anthony Kennedy on the importance of instilling a sense of ownership in the Constitution and the government in young people, stating that those institutions “don’t belong to history… to forefathers, framers, or anything like that.”


Dhanidina interprets the “depressing” statistics that one-third of American high school students cannot name any of the branches of government not just as an academic issue, but a crucial societal problem that leads to low voter turnout. Thus, he considers education to be the first and foremost priority in maintaining a true democracy.


“The time to express yourself is not in the streets after an election happens that you disagree with. The time is before that, and in between election cycles. So how do you convince people that it’s important to participate? The only way to do that is by teaching young people how it works, how it can work for them, and really, that it is a responsibility of citizenship to understand our system and our Constitution.”


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