US Senate confirms first Muslim federal district judge Zahid N. Quraishi

Zahid N. Quraishi
Zahid N. Quraishi has been confirmed for a federal judgeship in New Jersey. Image Credit: NYT

Washington: Zahid N. Quraishi, a federal magistrate judge and the son of Pakistani immigrants, was confirmed by the US Senate for a federal judgeship in New Jersey on Thursday, becoming the first Muslim Federal District Court judge in the nation’s history.

Quraishi acknowledged his history-making status after President Joe Biden announced his intention to nominate him in March. “Candidly,” the judge said, “I would prefer to be the hundredth, if not the thousandth.” He added, “I understand what it means to the community.”

The Senate confirmation Thursday, by a vote of 81-16, touched off a wave of congratulatory messages on social media from Democrats and progressives. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey called Quraishi “an excellent addition to the court.” Sen Mazie Hirono of Hawaii said “Congratulations Judge Quraishi!” The Senate majority leader, Chuck Schumer of New York, and Sen. Gary Peters of Michigan released congratulatory messages as well.

Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey called Quraishi “a man of integrity, a consummate public servant, and a trailblazer for Asian Americans and Muslim Americans across this country who dream of one day presiding over a court of their own.” He added: “We should all draw inspiration from his story, because it is a story that could only take place in the United States of America.”

Underscoring the historical significance of the confirmation, Janai Nelson, associate director-counsel of NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, Inc., said “Now seems like a good time to note that the first federal courts were created over 230 years ago.”

Quraishi was among the first wave of judicial nominations by Biden, who sought to counter the influence of his predecessor in steering federal courts to the right. Five of those nominees were people of colour, and two had worked as public defenders.

In 2019, Quraishi was appointed a US magistrate judge in New Jersey. Before that he was chair of the white collar criminal defence and investigations group for Riker Danzig Scherer Hyland & Perretti LLP, a large law firm in New Jersey. From 2008 to 2013 he was an assistant US attorney in New Jersey. Before that, he was an assistant chief counsel at the US Department of Homeland Security.

Early days

Quraishi, who was born in New York City and raised in Fanwood, New Jersey, graduated from Rutgers Law School in 2000. After clerking for a judge, he went to work at LeBoeuf, Lamb, Greene & MacRae LLP, which he later described in a podcast as a move to, in part, please his parents, who had immigrated to the United States from Pakistan.

“I took a job at the biggest law firm I could get a job at with the biggest salary,” Quraishi said in January on a podcast hosted by the Muslim Bar Association of New York. “I thought that would make my parents proud.”

His first day at work, he said, was Sept. 11, 2001. Two years later, Quraishi joined the Army and was deployed to Iraq. He was awarded the Bronze Star and was discharged in 2007.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations, a civil rights organisation, has criticized Quraishi’s work in Iraq, and in the second term of President George W. Bush. In a statement, the group said he worked as a “‘detention legal adviser’ during the American occupation of Iraq from 2003 to 2007 when prisoner abuse was rampant, and his service with ICE during the final two years of the Bush administration, have sparked concern in the civil rights community.”

The organisation wrote a letter to senators urging them to investigate Quraishi’s work during this time.

In the podcast interview, Quraishi described his path to the federal bench as a departure from what his father, a physician, had initially intended. “You can imagine my father thinking I would be going to med school to follow in his footsteps,” Quraishi recalled. But, he said, “I had no interest.” So he applied to law school instead.

“Without any real goal in mind, I thought why not go to law school?” he said in the podcast. “I like to argue, I talk all the time.”

In April, Quraishi’s 73-year-old father, Nisar, died from complications of the coronavirus, The Tribeca Trib reported. “He loved practicing medicine,” Quraishi told the paper. “He loved helping other people, which caused him to be infected and pass away.”