'An extraordinary moment': NJ's Zahid Quraishi makes history as first Muslim federal judge
Imam Mohammad Qatanani talks about the religious connection for Muslims who serve in local police departments during the holy month of Ramadan. April and May 2021 NorthJersey.com
A New Jersey magistrate judge and former prosecutor will become the first Muslim to serve on the federal bench, in a move hailed as a groundbreaking step toward representation and diversity.
Zahid Quraishi of Union County won broad bipartisan support from the U.S. Senate on Thursday, which confirmed his appointment as a U.S. district judge for the District of New Jersey, 81-16. He was the second New Jersey official to win approval to a federal judgeship this week. On Tuesday, senators voted 66-33 to appoint Bergen County administrator Julien X. Neals.
Senator Cory Booker, the New Jersey Democrat who recommended Quraishi, 46, for the position, lauded him as a person of conviction and patriotism "who happens to also be Muslim."
"We celebrate religious plurality and religious diversity," Booker said. "And so this is an extraordinary moment. Now I am thrilled that it's a bipartisan moment."
Dalya Youssef, president of the New Jersey Muslim Lawyers Association, said she followed the proceedings closely and was excited about the prospect of the first Muslim judge on the federal bench.
"Muslims are part of the community and the fabric of our society here and we should be represented in all forms of government including legislative, judicial and executive," she said.
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Born to Pakistani immigrants in New York City and raised in Fanwood in Union County, Quraishi was among a diverse slate of 11 judicial nominees put forward by President Joe Biden earlier this year.
After the Sept. 11 terror attacks, the Rutgers Law School graduate changed the trajectory of his career, joining the Army in 2003 as a military prosecutor and attaining the rank of captain. He was deployed to Iraq in 2004 and 2006.
"Judge Quraishi has devoted his career to serving our country, and his story embodies both the rich diversity of New Jersey and the promise of America as a place where anything is possible," U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez said on the Senate floor Thursday.
Quraishi has served as assistant chief counsel at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and an assistant U.S. attorney trying cases of public corruption, organized crime and financial fraud.
He was a partner at the New Jersey law firm Riker Danzig, where he was a white-collar criminal defense lawyer and investigator. Since 2019, he has served as a magistrate judge in New Jersey, a judicial office appointed by the District Court judges whose ranks he will now join.
Quraishi's appointment was not without controversy.
Muslim civil rights leaders had called for more clarity on his role as a legal adviser for detention operations during the Iraq War and for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. They did not get those answers on Thursday when Quraishi appeared before the Senate, which voted swiftly for his confirmation.
Robert McCaw, government affairs director at the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said while he wanted more information, he remained "excited over the elevation of a member of the Muslim community to a federal circuit judge position."
"Moving forward, we are looking forward to his tenure and his upholding the rights of all Americans including Muslims and we hope to learn more about his past experiences," he said.
Salam Al-Marayati, president of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, said he hoped more Muslims would be appointed in the future. Too often, Muslims had been excluded or faced extra scrutiny because of their faith, he said.
"We expect at some point there to be more judges nominated by the White House and confirmed by the Senate, and we hope they remove this barrier of a religious litmus test for nominees," Al-Marayati said.
To Al-Marayati and others, the litmus test appeared to be on display at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing last month, where Quraishi was asked what he knows about Sharia, or Islamic law. Sharia is the moral and ethical code that guides Muslims on how they should live their lives including tenets like prayer and charity. Quraishi responded that he knows nothing about Sharia.
Critics said the question falsely implied that being Muslim somehow is at odds with being American — and they had hoped Quraishi would make that clear.
Youssef said Quraishi's appointment would make it easier for others to rise, and that there were many qualified Muslim candidates, including women, who should be considered for future judgeships.
"We hope to keep the conversation going, that we don’t just get one and become complacent," she said.
Neals, the Bergen administrator, was first nominated by President Barack Obama in early 2015, but he was one of many of Obama's nominees blockaded by then-Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell.
In a March statement, Biden called his group of nominees a trailblazing slate that drew from the best and brightest of America's legal profession.
"Each is deeply qualified and prepared to deliver justice faithfully under our Constitution,” Biden said. “Together they represent the broad diversity of background, experience, and perspective that makes our nation strong.”
Hannan Adely is a diversity reporter covering Arab and Muslim communities for NorthJersey.com, where she focuses on social issues, politics, bias and civil rights. To get unlimited access to the latest news, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.