Forget catwalks, watch the courtrooms: No bar is too high for Indian-Americans to scale

Chidanand Rajghatta

22 September 2013, 06:00 AM IST

Almost the entire pantheon of India’s founding fathers was constituted of legal eagles. Gandhi, Nehru, Patel, and Jinnah all studied law, invariably in England. Even Ambedkar, who first went to Columbia University in New York, studied economics and political science in America, not law. Only later did he take up law — in England — shooting for the Bar at Gray’s Inn, one of the four Inns of Court in London (Gandhi and Nehru went to Inner Temple, and Jinnah went to Lincoln’s Inn).

You get the default picture here? England… law… bar… practice…politics…public life. Much later, it was America…and medicine, science, technology, management studies. Few came to the United States to study law, a profession about which many awful things are said in this country.

Well, the times they are a-changing. Immigrant Indians and the first generation may have forsaken law to study medicine, engineering, management for the most part, but second generation Indian-Americans have been flocking in droves to U.S law schools. There are no hard numbers, says Nadeem Bezar, President of the North American South Asian Bar Association (NASABA) but “there isn’t a prominent law school in America that does not have a South Asian law students network.” NASABA itself is a parent body of various SABAs, of which there is a chapter in almost every major American city, much the same way as chapters of Indian-American physicians and engineers sprouted in the 1990s. Law offices and lobbying firms in New York, Chicago, and Washington DC are now teeming with Indian-Americans.

The lawyerly trend has been visible for some years now, but breaking through the glass ceiling is a relatively recent phenomenon, illustrated by a flurry of high judicial appointments from the White House. On Thursday, President Obama nominated Chicagoan Manish S. Shah for the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois. It was the third major White House judicial pick of Indian-Americans this year, after the milestone nomination of Sri Srinivasan to the DC Court of Appeals (a stepping stone to the Supreme Court), followed by the nomination of Vince Girdhari Chhabria to the U.S District Court for the Northern District of California. All three are what are called Article III federal judges requiring nomination by the President and confirmation by the Senate.

Beyond this there have been several state level judicial appointments by governors over the past year — Alka Sagar as Magistrate Judge of the US District Court for the Central District of California, who will join Jay Gandhi who is already on the bench; Rupa S. Goswami as the Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge; Ketu Shah as District judge in Washington State. There are still others at the county and city level. Expect this to continue and accelerate, says Behar, because the first generation of Indian-Americans who went to law school in the 1980s have now gone past mid-career and are striving towards the top.

For instance, Alka Sagar has worked as an Assistant United States Attorney for the past twenty-six years, including serving as Deputy Chief of the Major Frauds and Major Crimes Sections. Manish Shah served as the Chief of Criminal Appeals and also Deputy Chief of the Financial Crimes & Special Prosecutions Section, before that. “In order to rise to a judicial appointment one has to have a distinct and accomplished career,” explains Behar. “What we are seeing now is the first labors of spectacularly bright South Asian men and women…moving into judiciary.”

And government and politics. For every judicial appointment, there is also the story of Indian-Americans legal eagles hitting the high spot in politics, and its stepping stone — prosecution. Preet Bharara (Columbia Law School 1993) and Kamala Harris (UC Hastings 1989) being the most prominent examples. Not to forget Neal Katyal, who served as acting Solicitor General in 2010-2011 succeeding Elena Kagan (who Obama bumped up to the Supreme Court) adn was lead counsel for Guantanamo Bay detainees in the Supreme Court. Katyal is now Professor of National Security Law at Georgetown University Law Center.

Indeed, there are numerous Indian-American faculty in law schools across the country. Like with management studies, there is hardly a law school in America that does not have a don of South Asian origin. Some of them are acknowledged experts in their field and the go-to guys for television anchors on major issues.F or instance, Yale Law School’s Akhil Amar, author most recently of America’s Unwritten Constitution: The Precedents and Principles We Live By is a favorite on constitutional issues. His brother, Vikram Amar is also a law professor and the Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at the UC Davis School of Law. University of Virginia Law School’s Sai Krishna Prakash’s is cited extensively in defense of America attacking its own outliers abroad. Then there is University of Denver’s Ved P.Nanda, who recently had a school at the Sturm College of Law named after him (Ved Nanda Center for International and Comparative Law).

So while Indian-Americans might win an occasional beauty pageant and cause a flutter, the strides they are quietly making in the legal, judicial, academic, and political field is something to behold.


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