Lecture Recap: Judge Zahid Quraishi in conversation with Udi Ofer

Written by
Sisi Batsaikhan '26, ODUS Communications Fellow
April 10, 2023

The newest installment of the FOCUS speaker series featured a conversation between Judge Zahid Nisar Quraishi and Professor Udi Ofer of the School of Public and International Affairs (SPIA). The event was hosted by the Office of the Dean of Undergraduate Students (ODUS) in collaboration with SPIA and took place in Arthur Lewis Auditorium, Robertson Hall, at 4:30 pm on Thursday, March 30, 2023.

judge Quraishi and Professor Ofer pose for a photo

Judge Quraishi and Professor Ofer pose for a photo together.  Photo by Sameer A. Khan h21/Fotobuddy.

Zahid Nisar Quraishi is a United States district judge of the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey and a former United States magistrate judge of the same court. Upon being nominated by President Joe Biden and receiving his judicial commission in 2021, he became the first Muslim-American to serve on a federal district court as an Article III judge. Before becoming a judge, he previously served as a federal prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney's office, and as a judge advocate in the US Army. Quraishi was an attorney at Riker Danzig LLP and was a partner at the firm from 2016–2019. Quraishi also taught courses on trial presentation at Rutgers Law School and Seton Hall Law School.

Udi Ofer is the James L. Weinberg Visiting Professor and Lecturer in SPIA, teaching courses on civil rights, policing, criminal justice reform, policymaking, and movement building. For two decades, Ofer worked as an attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), where he helped transform the organization into an advocacy powerhouse, expanding its work into new issues areas and tactics, including nonpartisan political advocacy. He is also the founding director of the Policy Advocacy Clinic and chair of the International Advisory Council of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel.

Dean Paul Lipton speaking

Paul Lipton, Senior Associate Dean for Academic Administration, introduces the speakers and welcomes attendees to the talk.  Photo by Sameer A. Khan h21/Fotobuddy

The event began with Paul Lipton, Senior Associate Dean for Academic Administration in SPIA, making welcoming remarks and introducing the speakers. Professor Ofer expressed his enthusiasm about the event and thanked the attendees before posing his first question to Judge Quraishi. Ofer highlighted the judge's commitment to serving the country throughout his career, from his early days as a lawyer to his current role as a federal judge, and asked why he decided to dedicate his life to public service. “When I was in law school … I really didn't know what I was going to do with my JD [Juris Doctor], I did what a lot of law students did, without a real focus or a passion for what I was going to do in my life,” Quraishi admitted. He mentioned that despite his successful career after law school, including working as a judicial clerk for a year and then joining a large law firm as a litigation associate, public service was not at the forefront of his mind. However, the trajectory of his career changed on September 11, 2001, the first day he started working at the law firm. The tragic events of that day caused him to reevaluate his career path and life purpose, ultimately leading him to pursue his true calling. In 2002, Quraishi “mustered up the courage to apply to the U.S. Army JAG Corps,” despite having no prior military experience and being a second-generation immigrant. After being honorably discharged, he realized that he wanted to continue serving his country as a civilian, which led to him looking for a position in the federal government. He described himself as a “late bloomer” compared to some current law students.

Judge Zahid Quraishi Smiles

Judge Zahid Quraishi smiles during the conversation.  Photo by Sameer A. Khan h21/Fotobuddy

Then, Ofer discussed Quraishi’s accomplishment of becoming both the first Muslim American Article III judge and the first Asian American federal judge in New Jersey, describing him as a “trailblazer,” quoting the words of Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) during Quraishi’s confirmation hearing. He asked the judge to share his thoughts on the significance of this achievement and his experience joining the military. Addressing the first part of the question, Quraishi expressed that he was more proud to have been selected as the first Asian American federal magistrate judge in New Jersey because it was a merit-based selection process. He highlighted the increase in diversity in the federal bench since then, mentioning a handful of other Asian-American judges including Rukhsanah L. Singh and Edward S. Kiel. Then, he noted that he did not consider himself to be a leader in the Muslim American community or legal community. “I just happen to be one Muslim American who was serving on the court who wanted this particular job,” he said. He explained that he believed he was not necessarily chosen because he was the best Muslim candidate, but because he was well-qualified and easily confirmable. Having received 81 votes before the U.S. Senate – which made him the candidate with the most votes of any current judicial nominee under the Biden administration – he had significant bipartisan support.

Several attendees listen and take notes during the talk

Several students listen and take notes during the Judge Quraishi and Professor Ofer conversation.  Photo by Sameer A. Khan h21/Fotobuddy.

Next, Ofer directed attention toward the judge’s experience joining the military, inquiring about Quraishi's decision to serve in the army during a time when the nation was grappling with issues related to national security and prejudice against Muslim Americans. Quraishi gave an anecdote about working at the law firm following the 9/11 attacks, stating that he faced bias and prejudice in his work environment despite being in a more fortunate position professionally than others. Quraishi then discussed the different ways Muslim American lawyers could have responded to the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, explaining that he had a different calling than those who joined the ACLU or represented detainees in Guantanamo Bay – which he acknowledged were noble causes. He shared that he was affected by the tragic events of the attack as a fellow American, saying, “I think I gravitated towards serving to show that this country is as much mine as much a part of my community as anybody else's.” Quraishi shared that he faced criticism from a small minority of people who questioned his nomination due to his service in the military. However, he believed that “there is more than one way to serve your country” and “they are not mutually exclusive.” He stressed that it is important for individuals to define who they are and what they want to do in their profession without allowing others to decide for them. He also noted that although the military does have its issues, he had a “tremendously positive personal experience.”

Udi Ofer gestures during response

Professor Udi Ofer gestures during his response.  Photo by Sameer A. Khan h21/Fotobuddy.

Ofer agreed that it was an important point, stating that he would like to think that Princeton encourages different career paths relating to public service. He then shifted the conversation to the issue of political polarization and how it affects Americans' perception of judges. He asked Quraishi if he thought the situation had worsened and asked him to argue against the idea of judges being seen as "politicians in robes." Quraishi acknowledged the seriousness of the issue, stating that the federal judiciary is facing an “unbelievably divisive” and polarized environment, with heightened public awareness of the role of magistrate judges and an uptick in threats to federal judges. He emphasized that judges are required to “apply the law to a particular set of facts without interference of any personal belief, whether religious, political, or otherwise,” and pointed out that the lifetime appointment of an Article III judge ensures impartial decisions without fear of political consequences or removal. Ofer challenged Quraishi’s argument, asking him how he would address the notion that different understandings of the Constitution might stem from the varying judicial philosophies and political views of judges, using Supreme Court justices as examples. Quraishi made clear that he could not speak for the Supreme Court as a district judge, but pointed out that the court has historically overruled its decision on multiple occasions, allowing for landmark cases like Brown vs. Board of Education, which ended racial segregation in public schools. While acknowledging that a certain level of concern among the American public is warranted, he highlighted the significance of trusting the judiciary, and for rulings to be followed as "we are a country governed by law." Quraishi expressed that while he does not have a definite answer, creating dialogue is essential to addressing the issue. He mentioned that a district judge in Florida stopped mask-wearing mandates on airplanes for the entire U.S., demonstrating the power district judges have. He stated that although they might not sit on the highest court, district judges hold significant responsibility and must make decisions based on the law, even if it goes against their personal beliefs. He expressed that although it is a difficult job, it is a “civilian responsibility” that judges sign up for.

Students pose with Judge Quraishi

Student attendees pose with Judge Quraishi.  Photo by Sameer A. Khan h21/Fotobuddy.

The conversation was opened to questions from audience members, with one asking about the different paths that young law students can take after graduation. Ofer responded that there are many different routes that one can take, including options like the ACLU, Homeland Security, and U.S. JAG Corps. Quraishi chimed in, emphasizing that "there are so many not-for-profit organizations that are helping those who are less fortunate than us. All those organizations, I think, are completely different avenues that can be explored.” Ofer agreed, saying, “I think we often think too much about skill set and tactic and not enough about where your passions are… once we switch the conversation that way you see the student light up in the sense that they're like, okay, I don't have to decide right now whether I should go to law school or not, but I could think about my future working on issues that I care about.”

The conversation and Q&A covered many more topics including Judge Quraishi’s confirmation hearing, forum shopping, challenges to amending the Constitution, and civil rights. Photos from the event can be viewed via ODUS SmugMug.  The full recording can be found on the ODUS YouTube Channel. Please continue to check the ODUS FOCUS website for upcoming events and additional resources during the spring semester.