Interview with Judge Dhanidina Part II: Dhanidina’s Path to Becoming California’s First Muslim Judge

The Honorable Halim Dhanidina is a Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge, currently assigned to hear criminal cases in the Long Beach Superior Court. A Pomona College and UCLA School of Law graduate, Judge Dhanidina is the first Muslim judge appointed in California. As a Judge, he is known for promoting diversity in the court system and criticizing the sting operations by the LBPD that targeted the LGBTQ community in April 2016. Prior to his position as a Judge, Dhanidina had served as a deputy district attorney in the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office since 1998 and had prosecuted cases for the elite Hardcore Gang and Major Crimes Divisions.

On February 15th, the Claremont Journal of Law and Public Policy hosted Judge Dhanidina for an exclusive interview with the CJLPP and a series of events.

CJLPP: “When did you first know that you wanted to pursue a career in Law?”

Dhanidina: “That’s an interesting question, because growing up, like I indicated before, I didn’t know any lawyers in the family. No one was really involved in the legal profession. And what I knew about the law, I got from popular TV shows and movies. That’s what I understood it to be. But, nevertheless, from the youngest age I can remember, I always had my parents, aunts and uncles, and other family members saying, ‘you should be a lawyer, you should definitely be a lawyer’. I realized it was because they thought I talked a lot and was argumentative, and I guess those are skills [a lawyer actually does need]. You need to be able to express yourself, and certainly argument is a big part of that. I always kind of internalized that, ‘I’m going to be a lawyer.’ If anyone had asked me growing up I would’ve said, ‘I’m going to be a lawyer in part because everyone has always told me that’s what I am going to be.’ I never really thought about what I want to do—it was sort of imparted on me. Then, it was kind of funny because both of my parents are educators, so they went off the beaten path too, culturally. They didn’t go into small business, and certainly not engineering or medicine or anything like that. They were kind of different that way from the rest of the community, being teachers. But then, when it came time for me to go to college, they started to change their tune a little bit. They started to fall back on their cultural stereotypes. They asked, ‘why not, be pre-med, right? You’re good at science, and math.’ I was good at it. I didn’t particularly care for it that much, but I was good at those subjects. And so then I thought, well, I guess the only reason that I was always thinking about law was because everyone always told me to think about it, not necessarily because I really reflected on it that much. And so I thought, okay, well, maybe my parents are right, maybe I should become a doctor, so I declared as a bio major. I think up until my first general chemistry midterm, I was pre-med. And once I knew after that I was going to burn my pass/no pass option on that class, I was no longer pre-med, and was more open about what I was going to do. I was kind of very “loosey-goosey” about my academic path when I was here. I think I had five different declared majors. So I was very decisive but I changed my mind a lot. Then, I landed on international relations. And I wonder if it was because I was running out of time, but that’s where I was, so I majored in international relations. And then I started to think about law school. It’s true [that] I was always fascinated and interested in international affairs. It’s hard to be a student at the Claremont Colleges and not see yourself as a global citizen. That’s just how you start to see yourself. Which is what I love about this place. You leave, thinking and believing, I’m going to change the world. That’s what I’m going to do. Whatever field it’s in, it’s going to be this momentous, world-changing thing.

And so that was my plan—I’m majoring in international relations, I’ll go to law school to study public international law. Maybe work for the state department or the UN or something and broker peace treaties or something like that. I thought, that’s what I’m meant to do. So then I ended up going to law school at UCLA. And you know, still trying to have a kind of open mind about what I wanted to do. The one thing I knew for a fact was that I did not want to be in court and I definitely did not want to do anything that had to do with criminal law. And it’s just kind of funny and random how things started to develop from there.

The first year curriculum in law school is kind of set. You don’t take electives, so you’re taking all of the basics, the core courses. And I kind of liked criminal law. So when my first summer came around where you have to pick an internship — it’s a very crucial time for a new law student — I couldn’t really figure out how to become this international peace broker that I thought I was going to be. The UCLA career services — and I don’t mean to trash another institution, it’s way better now — but when I was there, the career services were located in this tiny little room, with a bunch of binders, and not a lot of resources. It’s now way, way better, and I’m happy for people who came after me, but not when I was there. And so I would send my resume out cold to different agencies in D.C. or New York and not get any response. You know people on the West Coast don’t have many connections with that field. In fact, the law school itself, when I was there, there was only one course offered in public international law.

So my first summer, I was offered an internship at the public defender’s office. So I was like, okay, it’s something and it’s legitimate. It’s a free position, I’d have to work for free, but who knows it might be interesting. And I actually had a family friend who was working for the public defender in San Francisco at the time. And so I thought, ‘alright, let’s just try it out,’ and I loved it—it was so cool. Because you know, I found myself in court all the time helping these attorneys, interviewing their clients, working on cases and that Claremont side of me that says you’re meant to improve the lives of other people, really started to get fulfilled. And I thought, here I am, working on behalf of people who have nothing. They are literally at the mercy of everything around them, and you’re sort of at the last line of defense. And I thought that there was something particularly honorable about that. I just really enjoyed it, I liked the people I was working with — by the way, this is sort of unsolicited career advice, when you intern at a place, one of the things that you should be paying attention to is the people that you’re working with. The work you’re doing, yes, but the people. Because you need to ask yourself, ‘do I want to be like these people? Can I spend my life around people like this?’ And if the answer is no, you’ve got to go find something else. Because you are going to be very disappointed. But my experience was, these people are great; they’re dedicated, they’re smart, they’re dynamic, creative people, and I wanted to be like them. And so I thought okay, well maybe this was sort of meant to happen this way, I should be more open to this career path. And that’s when I first started thinking about, you know, the traditional legal career, in a courtroom kind of thing.

My next summer I thought well, for a change of pace, let me try the District Attorney’s office and just see which side I like more. I got an offer from them, but they told me at last minute, we want you to work for us but the position has now become unfunded so you’re going to have to work for free again, the second summer. It was hard to stomach that financially, and in the meantime I got an offer from the federal public defender’s office, which was a paid position. And ironically, the guy who did the interviewing and hiring was a Pomona alumnus. It was only four spots so I like to think that hopefully, we had a little connection there.

And so that was a fantastic experience too. It was different on the federal side, it was more research based but working around the same kind of dedicated people. And I thought, ‘okay, this is it.’ This is fate telling me I’m meant to be a public defender. If you ask anyone that went to law school with me at UCLA, which is predominantly a corporate law feeder, if you were to ask them what is Halim going to be, they’d [say], ‘That’s the guy who’s going to be a public defender,’ because that’s all that I was interested in. And so I took all the courses that I would need to [take, like] criminal procedure, I took a course on the death penalty, evidence, and I wanted to make myself into a great courtroom lawyer.

But then, I learned something that I like to tell students. It’s okay to believe something is fate; it’s okay to believe that you’re meant to do something. But you should have an open mind to the idea that perhaps the thing that you are meant to be is something that you don’t know yet. Maybe you think it’s one thing and it’s probably going to end up being something else—because that’s what happened to me. I passed the bar, I went into the public defender’s office for an interview, and got a really mediocre interview score, and never got an offer. So there I was, sitting in my studio apartment on a futon, thinking about okay, now what do I do? Because this was the only thing I ever thought about doing.

I’m going to date myself right now — right around that time, the UCLA law school launched its career services website for the first time. So I had my little dial-up modem, and I was able to get onto the website and check job listings. There was a volunteer position for the district attorney’s office. And I thought well I’m not prepared to do anything other than criminal, I had never really considered prosecution, but you know, what the heck. It was better than thinking of packing up and moving home. And so I started volunteering. Right around that time the district attorney’s office opened an application where they needed to hire some new people. It was literally me, interviewing along with all these other people who were DA law clerks for years. That’s all they ever wanted to do. And so I kind of had to come up on the fly with why you want to be a DA. Well let me think, what works here?

But jokes aside, I was drawn a little bit to the fact, and was very aware at that point, that the community that you serve as a public defender is the exact same community you serve as a DA. It’s in a different role, but it’s the same people, generally, from the same neighborhoods, same segments of society who are I think equally disenfranchised. You’re just playing a different role in the system. And so I did like that about the job. I thought this still affords me the opportunity to really help people that could use my help. And it was sort of weird. All I had was public defender stuff on my resume, but it was like they couldn’t hire me fast enough. I had one interview, got called for the second round of interviews the next day, got called for the third round of interview a few days later, got a call to start the next Monday. It was crazy. I think they were interviewing 900 people for five spots. And so, well, this is fate, obviously. Kind of like how I kept changing majors, I kept changing fates. Oh, fate is now telling me, to be a prosecutor. And I hadn’t really envisioned what it would be like to be a prosecutor until I was already on the job, in court, doing it. And I ended up loving it. I stayed there for 14 years before becoming a judge.

For me, [my decision to pursue a law career and my path to where I am now] was a learn-as-you-go kind of process.”

 

CJLPP: “Prior to your current position as judge, you were responsible for prosecuting cases for the elite Hardcore Gang and Major Crimes Divisions, and also served in the District Attorney’s Special Operations Administration–Of all of the positions you have held and divisions you have worked in, which have you found the most interesting and challenging? Have they played different roles in shaping your perspective on the U.S. legal system as a whole?”

Dhanidina: “When we talk about the credibility of the system and how that relates to public confidence, those are the communities that have very little public confidence in the system. And it is a challenge from the prosecution standpoint because we have to convince the parties involved that they [should] participate. If they already decide that they are not going to participate, then the system would be rendered completely ineffectual. That’s from the very initial stage of a case.

When the crime is committed, oftentimes it is in front of people, people are afraid. People are afraid to get involved and understandably so, because the notion of gangs intimidates people and make them not want to come forward. Even when the case involves the people themselves, if they were the victims, they are afraid to tell the police what happened or identify someone who’s involved, or certainly come to court, since our system is public. So if you are the witness and if you are going to testify, that’s public. Anyone who has come to the courtroom could be written about in the newspaper, and there will be public transcripts that anyone can get their hands on of who appeared and what they said. People feel very apprehensive about that, because of intimidation. As a prosecutor, I could only do so much of telling people not to feel intimidated because I was not in their shoes. I have had cases where witnesses have been killed because they were witnesses to crime. That is something that’s always hanging over every gang case. It is hard because you feel that you are fighting an uphill battle and nobody is on your side. You are fighting against the defense, but you are also fighting against your own witnesses to agree to come forward and to be honest in court so that some measure of justice could be achieved. That’s very, very difficult.

One thing being a prosecutor in those cases also teaches you is that gang crimes tend to affect very specific areas and communities where the people are not very accustomed to the representatives of the government treating them respectfully and devoting resources to the betterment of their lives. So it is a challenge when you always face a certain degree of cynicism and suspicion from the victims and their families and witnesses, because they are not used to seeing someone from the government devoting their attention to their case. So I feel like that it’s my job to give them a different experience. When I handled homicide cases that oftentimes involved young victims, I would always try to spend as much time as desired with the parents because they were used to being treated as a number and a statistic and I would try to have them come in and talk to me. They could talk to me about whatever they wanted. For example, how their trial is going, what they expect from the trial, what are the difficulties they are facing, [etc.] I believe this is the least that the society could do for the people who have lost a child.

Oftentimes I would visit them at their home, and you will be surprised by how many people would like to show you around and have you look at their child’s room and their pictures. I went to one family where they showed me a home video of Christmas celebrations with their child so that I would know who the person was. The parents wanted me, as a prosecutor, to understand what was at stake and what they have lost. And I think the whole process helped me provide a better service.”

 

CJLPP: “You are a volunteer judge for the LA Superior Court’s Teen Court program and a representative for the California Supreme Court Chief Justice’s Power of Democracy program created to promote civic learning in public schools. Could you speak about what motivates you to be involved in both of these programs, and why these programs are so crucial?”

Dhanidina: “Absolutely, and this is all kind of connected to what we were talking about. As a matter of fact I was just in Sacramento, I just flew back last night, for a conference on civic education for the Power of Democracy committee. I’ve always been very passionate about education and the role of education in society. It comes from both my parents being teachers. I teach [law school] on the side, and I just love that classroom environment. Because if you really want to make changes in society, that has to come from younger generations. That’s when you have to start. You have to have the patience to put in the work at the front end rather than being reactive to solving our problems. And in the area of civic education and even Teen Court, those are both kind of related: both are designed to educate young people about our system. And give them a sense that they own it. When people feel alienated from the system, that’s usually something that starts from a very young age. And if they feel that our legal system, our Constitution, and our judicial system are not relevant to them, then we start to lose the public confidence that we’re talking about. That does everyone a disservice. Because then not only is the system not operating the way that it was meant to, but the people in many ways are disenfranchising themselves by disengaging from a government and a society that’s meant to work for them.

One of the things that stuck with me that I heard [United States Supreme Court] Justice Anthony Kennedy saying is that when it comes to the idea of teaching young people about our society, and about our laws, the most important thing to convey to them is that the Constitution, our government, our institutions, belong to them. They are theirs. They own them. They don’t belong to history; they don’t belong to forefathers, framers, or anything like that. The Constitution has current, everyday relevance to people in modern society. And the only way they can really, I think, come to believe that for themselves, is if they are taught.

You know, having a constitution is worthless if you’re not teaching it to people, if you’re not transmitting it to people—specifically young people. The statistics are depressing, you hear them all the time but, nationwide, it’s something like one third of high school students can only name one branch of the three branches of government. One third can’t name any of the three branches of government. And this is something that my daughter, mercifully, is being taught in fourth grade.

So what we’ve lost, I think, in our public education system, is the importance of civics. Civics is not the class you take as a prerequisite, take a multiple-choice test, and you’re done with it– it’s something that really ought to be incorporated in every stage and in every discipline from a very young age. People might be surprised to know that in Poland, which is a former eastern bloc country, once they got independence from the Soviet Union, they wanted a constitution for themselves. And so they studied the United States Constitution. It’s part of their curriculum. Students in Poland are taught about the United States Constitution from the fourth grade on, in every year! So they can tell you more about checks and balances and federalism than most [U.S.] high school students can.

Again, this is not an academic issue. This is a crucial societal issue, because then you see things like low voter turnout. The time to express yourself is not after an election happens that you disagree with, and then you’re in the street. The time is before that, and in between election cycles. There’s an interesting quote I read recently that ‘bad public officials are the result of good citizens that decide not to vote.’ And I think that’s true. So how do you convince people that it’s important to participate [in] and understand the system that they’re in and be involved in it? The only way to do that is by teaching young people how it works, and how it can work for them, and really, that it’s a responsibility of citizenship to understand our system and our Constitution and how it works.”

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