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Raising the Bar – Lavina Melwani


What makes Indian-American women so phenomenally successful in the American judiciary?


In April this year, Chennai-born Raja Rajeswari, a graduate of Brooklyn Law School, made front page headlines as the first Indian-born woman to be appointed a judge in New York City (NYC). “It’s like a dream. It’s way beyond what I imagined,” she told, a Staten Island news website. “For someone like me, an immigrant who comes from India, I’m beyond grateful. I told the Mayor that this is not only my American Dream, but it shows another girl from a faraway country that this is possible.”


For 43-year-old Rajeswari whose interest lies in cases involving women and children, the famous Carlos Rosario case was a turning point. Rosario, “the poster child of predatory sexual assault”, as Rajeswari calls him, was accused of raping children and videotaping hundreds of others. He was the first to be convicted under the Predatory Sexual Assault law in 2009. Says Rajeswari about her historic appointment: “New York is multicultural and multiethnic. The fact that there are only two judges and no women judges is not okay. I want to ensure that the multiethnic population that forms the foundation of NYC is treated fairly and provided access to resources including language interpreters early and often in the process.”


Rajeswari is not the only Indian-born lawyer to create history in the judiciary in the United States. Bihar-born Sabita Singh became the first judge of South Asian descent in the history of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Singh, who has served as a Prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney’s office in Boston, focuses on human trafficking. She is especially known for being responsible for convicting Eddie O’Brien in the high-profile juvenile murder case that shook Somerville city in Massachusetts.


Brien, 15 years old, 6 ft. 4 inches tall and known as a “gentle teddy bear”, brutally stabbed his best friend’s mother more than 60 times several years ago. He was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole. Singh, who graduated from the Boston University School of Law and specialised in white collar criminal defence in a major law firm in Boston, is the former founding president of the South Asian Bar Association of Greater Boston and the current president of the North American South Asian Bar Association.


Adding to the growing number of achievers is Ushir Pandit, Senior Assistant District Attorney, Queens DA, who has just been nominated as a Judge for the Queens County Civil Court in New York.


How have so many Indian-American women lawyers become successful in the U.S. and why is it so significant?


Mallika Dutt, an award-winning human rights activist and founder-president of Breakthrough, a human rights organisation, says, “The American legal system has historically been a critical space for establishing human rights for multiple communities. Indian Americans have benefited from many of these struggles. When I co-founded Sakhi (a women’s rights group) 25 years ago, Indian-American women in the legal sphere played an essential role in protecting women. Now that we have a larger voice in the future of this country, it’s even more important for us to have a voice in law and policy.”


As the above examples show, tremendous strides have been made by India-born women lawyers in the U.S. — now just now but earlier too. The “firsts” are many: Kerala-born Rachel Kunjummen Paulose was the first Indian-American to be nominated by the U.S. President and confirmed by the U.S. Senate to serve as a U.S. Attorney. She became the youngest person, the first Asian-American, and the first woman to lead the District of Minnesota. Cathy Bissoon was the first Indian-American to be a judge in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania. Kamala Harris has been the Attorney General of California since 2011 and is now running for the US Senate seat. There are many more.


Despite the inroads that these women are making, Rippy Gill, the President-elect of the South Asian Bar Association of New York (SABANY), feels that there is still a long way to go. “Various studies over the last decade have shown that over 40 per cent of law school graduates are women, but we have yet to see those percentages correspond to equality in the workplace,” she says. “Women still earn less than men for equal work across industries and in law, and they remain severely underrepresented at the equity partner level at large law firms, as well as in the judiciary.”


Studies by the PEW Research Centre show that women earn 84 per cent of what men earn in the U.S. It is in the march towards equality that SABANY has formed a committee to support the advancement of women in their careers through professional development, mentorship and networking opportunities.


Why women are doing so well in law is because their entry in public life as judges, attorney generals and lawyers has also improved the lives of minorities. Vanita Gupta’s is one such example.


At a time of heightened conflict between the white and black communities in the U.S., Gupta worked with the American Civil Liberties Union — her first case after graduating from law school, in fact — in a case involving 35 people, mostly blacks, who had been convicted on charges of possessing cocaine. They had been sentenced to 60-300 years in prison. The number of convicted was almost 10 per cent of the 5,000-strong population of the small town of Tulia in Texas. Gupta not only managed to overturn their convictions and help negotiate a $6 million settlement for them, but she also managed to have the drug task force that was responsible for this miscarriage of justice disbanded.


“Gupta has spent her entire career working to ensure that our nation lives up to its promise of equal justice for all,” said Attorney General Holder in announcing her appointment as Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General and Acting Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division. “Even as she has done trailblazing work as a civil rights lawyer, she is also known as a unifier and consensus builder.”


Similarly, attorney Urvashi Vaid has played a leadership role in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) and social justice movements. She started her social justice work as a staff attorney at the National Prison Project of the ACLU, where she initiated the group’s work on HIV/AIDS in prisons.


Perhaps Anurima Bhargava, Chief of the Educational Opportunities Section of the Civil Rights Division at the U.S. Department of Justice, speaks for a majority of the accomplished women when she says: “We are all uniquely positioned to represent and translate the needs of our communities, especially for those among us who do not have a voice. It is critical that we engage in the fight for civil and human rights, and for the dignity and respect that must be accorded to our families and our communities. For generations, women have reached across boundaries and built coalitions across class, race, religion, and nationality; for us all to move forward, that tradition must continue.”


Lavina Melwani is a New-York based journalist. Follow @lavinamelwani