Admired for his defense of immigrant Muslim clients in the turmoil following Sept. 11, Sohail Mohammed is now making courageous rulings from the bench.
Standing at the podium to welcome them that day was Sohail Mohammed ’88, a Superior Court judge and naturalized citizen himself. For more than a decade, Mohammed has run the New Citizens’ Swearing-in Program at Passaic County’s annual Law Day celebration. It’s an event he wouldn’t miss.
“I will support and defend the Constitution. This is a powerful statement that you make,” he observed of the oath. “This could mean bringing to court a decision that could have been resolved on the streets. Or standing up for justice.”
Mohammed, who moved to the U.S. from Hyderabad, India at 15, experienced the duties of citizenship soon after he obtained it at the age of 23. While still an undergraduate at NJIT earning a degree in electrical engineering, he was called to jury duty. Far from dismissing it as an onerous task, he found his time in court to be a fascinating window not only on the legal process, but on U.S. democracy itself. It changed his life.
“I was so impressed by my experience and our commitment to justice that I asked the judge if I could visit his court again as an observer,” he recounts. “He became a mentor and encouraged me to go to law school.”
Before he was appointed to the bench in 2011, becoming the first Indian-American judge in the state, Mohammed was principally an immigration lawyer. He won the respect of fellow lawyers, law enforcement officials, and human rights advocates well beyond the state’s borders for defending immigrant Muslim clients detained by the FBI after Sept. 11. Every one of them was eventually released.
Robert Passero, the former Superior Court Assignment judge whose courtroom had so impressed the young Mohammed, recalled his protege’s vital role in a time of turmoil.
“He’s a wonderful person who wanted to do the right things for the right reasons,” said Passero, who retired in 2008 after 20 years on the bench and is now an attorney with the North Haledon law firm De Marco and De Marco. “His practice was devoted almost entirely to immigration law and he represented a lot of people. Paterson was one of the largest Muslim populations in the country and emotions were riding high. Sohail stood up and did what he had to do, working closely with the U.S. Attorney’s office and Homeland Security.”
Mohammed did more than simply represent the wrongly accused, however. He became a critical link to Muslims in the region not just for law-enforcement officials, but for many other groups in the community with little knowledge of their diverse culture.
“He’s been called to speak throughout the state about cultural issues, talking to people about what it means to be a Muslim, and explaining aspects of the culture that are misinterpreted. He’s helped promote a better understanding,” Passero says, adding, “With misunderstanding, prejudice, and no communications, differences are blown up.”
When he appointed Mohammed to the bench, Gov. Chris Christie famously dismissed critics who questioned whether a Muslim would adhere to the Constitution as “the crazies.” His rulings since then, admirers say, demonstrate his willingness to do so even amid controversy.
While introducing him earlier this year on campus at an Albert Dorman Honors College colloquium on careers, Acting Dean Katia Passerini referred to a precedent-setting decision he’d made just days before in a case regarded as one of the first its kind in the country. He granted a birthing mother the right to make fundamental decisions regarding the child’s delivery, allowing her to bar the father from the room. The opinion, which has been widely cited since, relied on her right to privacy.
Mohammed did not elaborate, as he is forbidden to discuss issues before the court. He does not hesitate to talk about the importance of engaging in civic life, however.
“Don’t discount the volunteer or civic duty that you have,” he told NJIT students that day, while also urging them to keep “keep your doors open, your eyes and ears open” to life’s many possibilities.
“Don’t worry about changing,” he said, in recounting his own professional journey from draftsman, to electrical engineer, to lawyer, to judge. After earning a degree in electrical engineering cum laude from Newark College of Engineering at NJIT, he worked full-time as an electrical engineer while pursuing a law degree at Seton Hall University Law School.
On Law Day this past May, Mohammed spoke of the importance of exercising one of the fundamental rights of citizenship: voting. He recounted to the packed room, which included middle and high school students in addition to the families gathered for the naturalization ceremony, how he had voted even on the day his father died.
“When you walk out of this courtroom you are an American,” he said. “Citizenship is the most precious gift any nation can provide.”