The Arab American Lawyers Association of Southern California on Friday held its first in-person dinner since 2019. The event was both a celebration of Arab American heritage and a rally for more representation in the legal profession in California.
"There is a significant Arab population in our region, and we are helping to make sure we are heard and seen in a positive light," incoming president Rudy Salo said later. "People of Arab heritage are often portrayed as terrorists in the media, but we don't have to accept that. L.A. is a hub for media of all kinds, and we can work to make sure our perspectives are considered and our voices are heard."
Justice Joshua Groban of the California Supreme Court -- in a chat with board member and Assistant U.S. Attorney Jehan Pernas -- talked about the ways in which lawyers can secure bench appointments. Currently four state court judges in California identify as being of Arab heritage.
Groban, a former judicial appointments secretary to Gov. Jerry Brown, told a sold-out crowd at the Indigo Hotel in downtown Los Angeles that cultivating future members of the bar starts in high school, and encouraged efforts to get young people interested in becoming lawyers and eventually jurists. He also offered some self-criticism, saying that early on Brown's administration was too focused on traditional markers of achievement, favoring candidates who went to the best-ranked law schools and had high grade-point averages.
"Being a judge is so much more," he said. "It's about being a good listener and having a high emotional IQ and not having an ego."
"We learned early on that nobody's ego went down when you put a robe on them," he cracked.
Several speakers, including Salo and outgoing president Hannah Sweiss, a partner at Fisher Phillips LLP, spoke about the need for a MENA, or Middle Eastern and Northern African, category on U.S. Census forms and other federal documents. That category, they said, would help in identifying the need for more representation of the community in the judiciary and in other institutions and professions, and on corporate boards.
"The No. 1 challenge I see facing Arab American attorneys is our lack of a box to check that truly identifies who we are and where we come from. Most Arab American attorneys must mark White or Caucasian on Census Bureau requests, which doesn't give the same status as other disadvantaged groups," said Salo, a public finance partner at Nixon Peabody LLP.
People of Middle Eastern and Northern African heritage have pushed for three decades to get the MENA category placed on government forms. A federal working group in January recommended that a MENA category be recognized on official government documents. In 2019, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Assembly Bill 532 that added a MENA category to California's state documents, including birth and death certificates, and allows individuals to identify themselves as Middle Eastern or North African on state forms.
April was National Arab American Heritage month. San Bernardino County Superior Court Judge Tony Raphael, a board member, began Friday's dinner by recognizing the contributions of Arab Americans.
Rasha Gerges Shields, a Jones Day partner, was honored. California Chief Justice Patricia Guerrero recently named Shields to serve on a newly-formed Supreme Court and Courts of Appeal Bias Prevention committee. And Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass named Shields to the Los Angeles Board of Police Commissioners.
Other honorees at the dinner were California Minority Counsel Program, California ChangeLawyers and The Walt Disney Co., which was recognized for making TV shows and movies that positively represent people of Arab heritage.