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Obama Nominates First Muslim To Federal Court


President Obama is poised to make history this week with his choice to fill an open seat on the federal court in Washington, D.C. He nominated Washington lawyer Abid Qureshi. If confirmed, Qureshi would become the first Muslim federal judge. NPR's Carrie Johnson reports.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Over the past seven years, President Obama has appointed 138 women and 120 minorities to federal judgeships.

KATHRYN RUEMMLER: Well, the president has made diversity in judicial nominations a major priority really from day one of his term in office.

JOHNSON: Former White House counsel Kathryn Ruemmler explains the president's thinking behind judicial selections. Those jobs require Senate confirmation and are held for life.

RUEMMLER: Having judges who are reflective of the nation as a whole just brings public confidence into our court system.

JOHNSON: This week the president took another step toward his goal by selecting Abid Qureshi for a judgeship on the federal bench in Washington. Qureshi was born in Pakistan. He moved to the U.S., became a citizen and went on to graduate from a pair of Ivy League schools - Cornell and Harvard Law. Soon Qureshi could be headed for the history books.

FARHANA KHERA: A number of American Muslims have served with distinction as judges at the state level in state courts throughout our country, but in our nation's history, no American Muslim has served as a federal judge.

JOHNSON: Farhana Khera is executive director of Muslim Advocates, a national legal advocacy group.

KHERA: This is a very, very exciting time, and we are just so thrilled that the president took this step.

JOHNSON: Qureshi has spent his entire career at a single law firm - Latham and Watkins - where Kathryn Ruemmler is his partner.

RUEMMLER: He's a brilliant lawyer, but his temperament and his demeanor and his collegiality and just general kindness towards colleagues is legendary.

JOHNSON: 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 and 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's passionate about donating his time to good causes. Some of those pro bono projects have been colorful. Again, Farhana Khera of Muslim Advocates...

KHERA: One particular case that comes to mind is Abid's leadership in acting as co-counsel with us in a case we brought last year on behalf of two American Muslim comedians who were challenging the New York City subway authority's refusal to run ads that they had created.

JOHNSON: The ads promoted their movie, a comic documentary designed to counter negative stereotypes.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Can I invite you to a stand-up comedy show? It's absolutely free. It's tonight at 8 o'clock. It's called "The Muslims Are Coming." There's a bunch of Muslims on stage, but they're hilarious.

JOHNSON: Once again Qureshi prevailed in the case. A federal judge sided with the comedians 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. Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.