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Lawyer Nominated By Obama Would Be First Muslim Federal Judge

Abid Qureshi, a partner at the law firm Latham & Watkins, has been nominated to fill a spot on the federal court in Washington, D.C.
Latham & Watkins LLP via AP
Abid Qureshi, a partner at the law firm Latham & Watkins, has been nominated to fill a spot on the federal court in Washington, D.C.

Lawyer Abid Qureshi could become the first Muslim federal judge. President Obama nominated Qureshi for an open seat on the federal court in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday.

Over the past seven years, Obama has appointed 138 women and 120 minorities to federal judgeships. He has made this judicial diversity a "major priority" throughout his time in office, says former White House Counsel Kathryn Ruemmler, who now works with Qureshi at the D.C. law firm Latham & Watkins.

"Having judges who are reflective of the nation as a whole just brings public confidence into our court system," Ruemmler says, explaining the president's thinking about these selections, which require Senate confirmation and are held for life.

American Muslims have served as judges at the state level, but never as a federal judge, says Farhana Khera, executive director of Muslim Advocates, a national legal advocacy group.

"This is a very, very exciting time, and we are just so thrilled that the president took this step," Khera says of Qureshi's nomination.

Qureshi, born in Pakistan and now a U.S. citizen, graduated from Cornell University and Harvard Law. He has spent his entire career at Latham & Watkins.

"He's a brilliant lawyer," says fellow partner Ruemmler, "but his temperament and his demeanor and his collegiality and just general kindness toward colleagues is legendary."

The National Law Journal says Qureshi's clients include a student loan servicing company, a pharmacy giant and the Hospital Corporation of America. He also represented a private school with ties to the Saudi Arabian government in a case before the National Labor Relations Board. The dispute centered on whether the board had jurisdiction over the school's decision to fire a teacher. Qureshi cast the case as a matter of religious freedom — and he won.

Friends say he is passionate about donating his time to good causes. Some of those pro bono projects have been colorful. Khera of Muslim Advocates points to a case her group handled with Qureshi as co-counsel last year. They represented two American Muslim comedians who had been told they could not run ads for their movie in the New York subway system. The comic documentary, The Muslims Are Coming, was designed to counter negative stereotypes.

Qureshi once again prevailed in the case. As CBS New York reported at the time, a federal judge sided with comedians Dean Obeidallah and Negin Farsad about their free speech rights, and the ads ran in the subway.

The question now is whether the Senate has enough time and interest to hold a hearing and confirm Qureshi in this presidential election year.

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Carrie Johnson
Carrie Johnson is NPR's National Justice Correspondent.
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