It’s been a difficult, challenging road from Mumbai, India, to a seat on the bench on the Los Angeles Superior Court for Hon. Firdaus F. Dordi. But, it’s been a path built on a foundation of hard work, determination, and ethical standards rooted in ages past.
IT IS A LONG, HARD ROAD FROM THE CROWDED streets of Mumbai, India, to a seat on the bench as a judge on the Los Angeles County Superior Court, the largest single unified trial court in the entire United States.
A difficult, challenging road, indeed, but for Los Angeles Superior Court Judge, Hon. Firdaus F. Dordi, it was, and remains, a path built on a foundation of a desire to serve others, determination, and a strong work ethic rooted in ages past.
Article by Michael D. White | Valley Viewer SFVBA
“I was born in Mumbai, in a lower-middle class neighborhood. It would now be considered kind of a slum,” says Judge Dordi. “It was a two-bedroom apartment unit, and we lived with my grandparents in one room, and the four of us in the other. We didn’t have running water throughout the day, as we had to fill a tank at a particular time when the municipality would turn on the water. That was the water you’d have for the day.
“Each day, my grandmother would get up at about five o’clock and make sure that the tanks were filled. There was no hot water, so we would have to boil it. We didn’t have a toilet inside of our apartment; the communal toilets were at the back end of the building.”
It was, he says, “a very humble existence, but we were lucky because of my dad’s job, and the fact that my mom also worked at a time in India when women generally did not work outside the home. She was pretty rebellious and pretty independent. My grandparents cared for my brother and me from the time that we would come back from school until my parents arrived home from work.”
Judge Dordi’s father was “very gritty” and “quite fortunate, in that despite going to a school for underprivileged children, he had some good teachers and did exceedingly well in math”–a proficiency in math and a high score on a national academic test gained him admission into one of India’s best universities at the time.
“Because of his parents’ circumstances, he could not avail himself of that education and had to begin working to support his parents,” says Judge Dordi.
An interview with Air India led to a job with the air carrier and a 25-year career that lifted him to a posting as Air India’s Assistant Sales Manager in New York, and ultimately West Coast Regional Sales Manager in Los Angeles.
The move to New York by his parents required Judge Dordi and his brother to spend a year at a Catholic, English- speaking boarding school in India.
“They put us in the boarding school because they anticipated a severe culture shock, especially coming from where we were in India to New York. English was my third language. They wanted to acclimate first, while providing us the opportunity to speak more English regularly before coming here. They thought that would make our transition to the United States a little smoother.”
The reconnected family lived in Queens “in a one- bedroom apartment where my brother and I slept in the living room and my parents in the bedroom until we came to California.”
Shortly after moving to California, the family bought their first home. It was in the Valley. Judge Dordi’s father retired from Air India and started a travel agency when the posting to Los Angeles ended.
“My brother had gained admission to UCLA, and my parents wanted us to avail of the educational opportunities that they could not.”
“I grew up in the Valley. It has been my home since I was about eight years old.”
According to Judge Dordi, the experience of his ancestors has played a major role in how he translates the course of the path his life has taken.
“My ancestry is Zoroastrian. A group of Zoroastrians from the town of Pars fled persecution in Iran, in about the early 8th Century. They first settled on a small island between India and Pakistan. After nineteen years on the island, they traveled to the west coast of India, near what is modern-day Gujarat.
“When they arrived, the king of the province of Sanjan sent, as a symbol to the priest on the ship, a glass of milk that was filled to the brim.”
The full glass of milk “was a symbol that their society was full, and they couldn’t allow the Zoroastrians to land on their
shore. The Zoroastrian priest on the boat poured sugar in the milk and sent it back to the King to taste. The King tasted it, and he knew that it meant that ‘we will make your society metaphorically sweeter.’”
The King, says Judge Dordi, “realized that these were wise people who needed refuge and could be an asset to his kingdom. He allowed the Zoroastrians to land ashore. And that’s the history of the Parsees, the people from Pars who came to India.
“It’s a great immigration story for not only the Parsees in India, but also immigrants in the United States and the impact they have on our society. I don’t know if the story is actually true, but I like it quite a bit.”
In January 2017, Judge Dordi was sworn in as a Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge.
During his career, he spent nearly 14 years with the Office of the Federal Public Defender, starting as a Deputy and ending his service there as the Chief of the Los Angeles office’s Trial Unit.
One of those who addressed the gathering at Judge Dordi’s swearing-in was his former boss, Federal Public Defender Hilary Potashner.
“Firdaus was an absolute institution when he was at the Federal Public Defender’s Office,” she said. “And it was so bittersweet when he left the office because we all wanted the very best for him.
“Back in January, the federal defense world officially lost one of its very brightest and best to the state bench. And as [Chief] Judge [Virginia A.] Philips said, our loss is certainly the state of California’s gain. I’m sure that Firdaus is and will continue to be an absolutely extraordinary judge
JUDGE DORDI, WHAT CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT YOUR EDUCATION IN HIGH SCHOOL, COLLEGE AND LAW SCHOOL?
”I grew up in the Woodland Hills area, and went to elementary, middle, and high school all in that area with El Camino being my high school. My undergraduate studies were at UC Santa Barbara. When I arrived there and saw the campus, I instantly fell in love with it. I’m still in love with it and if it had a law school, I would have probably gone there.
“I wanted to be an English professor and teach. I loved the art of storytelling and how literature mixed with history to contribute to human progress and understanding.
One of the classes that I had to take as part of my other major, political science, was either constitutional law or international law. I chose international law primarily because it started a little later in the morning. I didn’t anticipate that I would love the class or do as well as I did.
“My international law professor and his assistant pulled me aside and said, ‘You should really think about applying and commuted to Loyola. I earned a partial scholarship after my first year, which made it even easier to graduate debt free.
“My parents taught me that hard work, service to others, and a good education are the pillars of a meaningful life. That has become a mantra for me.”
to law school and taking the LSAT. You think and write very clearly, structuring your arguments and providing proof for each one, as a good lawyer would.”
“That’s when I considered taking the LSAT. Even after I took it, I wasn’t sure that I would want to go to law school because I was always insecure about my ability to speak English well enough to be the voice of others.
“That class gave me some confidence to consider going into the law. I then met a deputy public defender from San Diego. She invited me to come shadow her. After observing her for a day, I really felt like that was something I wanted to do.”
“I’ve always been a huge student of the Constitution. I’m amazed at how short it is, how long it has survived, and how it has stood up to all of the trials and tribulations of interpreting it over the years.
“As a public defender, you’re really ensuring the rights set out in the Constitution and defending them on a daily basis. That is a wonderful thing to do, and it was then that I was certain of wanting to pursue a career in law.”
“I attended Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, and my desire to pursue a career in the public interest made my decision to remain in Southern California easier. I didn’t want to incur a lot of debt, even at that time (when law school was much more affordable than it is now), so I lived at home
FOLLOWING LAW SCHOOL, YOU WORKED AS A RESEARCH ATTORNEY, AS A LAW CLERK IN THE U.S. DISTRICT COURT, IN PRIVATE PRACTICE WITH YOUR OWN FIRM, AND 13 YEARS AS A FEDERAL PUBLIC DEFENDER FOR THE CENTRAL DISTRICT OF CALIFORNIA. AT ANY TIME DURING ALL THAT DID YOU EVER SET YOUR SIGHTS ON BECOMING A JUDGE?
“No, not really. I am pleasantly surprised to be where I am. I learned a lot from the judges for whom I clerked but having chosen a career in public interest at the Public Defender’s Office, I did not conceive that being a bench officer would be in the stars for me.
“At that time, there were really very few paths to the bench, state and federal, for public defenders. In fact, I wasn’t aware of anyone, when I started in the Federal Public Defender’s Office in 2000, that had ever been appointed to the federal bench. There were just a few samples of folks that had been appointed to the state bench. So, I really didn’t see that as an option or career path.
“It’s nice to see now that so many public defenders are being appointed to the bench, including our latest United States Supreme Court Justice. Now, public defenders are even running for election to the bench in California.
“It really wasn’t until the former head of the Federal Public Defender’s Office–then Judge, now Justice–Maria Stratton and the former Deputy Chief, Judge Dennis Landin, and other mentors approached me and suggested that I should consider applying to the bench after I’d been with the Federal Public Defender’s Office for almost 14 years.
“Even after they suggested that to me, I waited another three years before ultimately applying. At the time I applied, I’d already left the PD’s office, and I had started a small firm with two partners. I realized that my heart’s always been
in public service and that I’m happiest when I’m serving people. Even though I enjoyed private practice and the firm was very successful, on a personal level, I feel the greatest satisfaction in public service.”
HOW HAS YOUR LIFE EXPERIENCE INFLUENCED YOUR SERVING AS A JUDGE?
“Every aspect of my background has always been a source of inspiration to me in terms of what I can achieve, and what I know others can achieve.
“I am very fortunate because of my humble upbringing and my parents’ careers in the travel industry, I have had the opportunity to travel the world and meet people from different socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds.
“Every summer, my parents had my brother and I travel back to visit my grandmother in India. My parents didn’t want us to lose our Indian cultural heritage. We maintained our language skills and our culture through those visits. That said, I always felt like an outsider both here and there while I was growing up. When I first came here, I was obviously an outsider, in that sense, but when I went back to India, because my family had moved to the United States, I was no longer seen as a local, even in my old neighborhood.
“Those experiences have taught me to be able to assimilate to different situations quickly. They have also helped me understand people and develop an inclusive judicial philosophy, where I am much more mindful of such things as implicit bias and access to justice issues.
“For example, someone not looking you in the eye while they are testifying, might be based on their culture, as opposed to them not telling the truth. Imagine how nervous someone may be appearing in a U.S. courtroom where English is not their first language. Now imagine that appearance is in a case where the person’s liberty is at stake in terms of a criminal case, or their being able to be with their children in a family law or dependency case.
“I am always less likely to assume any of those things just because culturally, I understand that that could be a very different experience for different people.
“For our society to continue to thrive, we have to ensure that everyone feels that they are included, that they have access to the courts, and that they’re not going to be judged unfairly based on cultural differences, rather than the merits of their case.”
DURING YOUR TIME ON THE BENCH, HAVE YOU SEEN ANYTHING CHANGE IN THE ATTITUDES OF THE PUBLIC TOWARD THE JUDICIARY, WHAT YOU DO, AND HOW YOU DO IT?
“As a society, I think we are more divided than I’ve ever seen, but I’m a student of history. It teaches us that there’ve been many times that we were even more divided than we are today.
“The independence of the courts is an essential safeguard and feature of our country that makes us so unique in terms of overcoming the most difficult adversities.
“I feel that I am one of the beneficiaries of the progress this country has made in terms of civil rights.
“I am always reminded of a quote by Dr. King, where he said that, ‘Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable. Every step towards the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, struggle, and the tireless exertions and passionate concerns of dedicated individuals.’
“I wholeheartedly agree with Dr. King. The pursuit of progress and justice have been a real significant part of my adult life. I don’t think it just comes from my Western legal education, I know a significant part of it comes from my philosophy and faith, which has its central tenet: thinking good thoughts, speaking good words, and performing good deeds.
“On a daily basis, it’s important for me to make sure that I’m not prejudging something or someone, that I’m speaking good words, treating everyone with respect, and serving as a model for those that are in my courtroom, in my life…my children, my family…and making sure that what I do is good in the context of what I think is needed for progress and justice.”
SITTING ON THE BENCH IS VERY CHALLENGING IN MANY WAYS. HOW WOULD YOU GAUGE THE MORALE OF THE JUDGES YOU SERVE WITH?
“The judges that I work with are extremely committed, dedicated public servants. I’m constantly in awe of the energy and the passion that they have for serving the community.
“The bench is extremely collegial, and the Van Nuys bench, in particular. It’s just been a pleasure to be here. When I was appointed and learned I was going to be in Van Nuys, I was thrilled it would allow me to serve the Valley community that has given so much to my family and me.
“When I first started, Judge Huey Cotton was the Supervising Judge and now Judge Virginia Keeny has taken on that role. They’re both so supportive and such wonderful people. They set such great examples for all of us. The professionalism and grace with which they handle their responsibilities is a constant source of inspiration for me.”
THERE ARE THOSE WHO THINK THE JUDICIARY HAS, IN SOME WAYS, STARTED TO BECOME MORE LEGISLATIVE THAN JUDICIAL IN ITS APPROACH TOWARDS APPLYING THE LAW. WHAT IS YOUR FEELING ABOUT THAT PERCEPTION?
“I see the work of my colleagues on a daily basis and what I see are very dedicated people, focused not on some agenda, but rather on ensuring justice for all who come before them.”
HOW HAS COVID-19 IMPACTED THE JUDICIAL SYSTEM AND DO YOU THINK THERE ARE SOME THINGS THAT SHOULD GO BACK TO THE WAY THEY WERE PRE-PANDEMIC?
“I don’t think we’ll ever go back to where we were before the pandemic, in terms of not utilizing the available technology.
“I don’t know if we’ll completely move to a remote justice model. But I think having that flexibility will allow us to have the greatest ability to serve the entire community, and, as those technologies become more available to marginalized populations, the access to justice for all will continue to grow.
“The need for human interaction is also quite substantial, as we’re seeing by having more in-person events. People are very excited to see each other face-to- face again.
“This hybrid model of serving the needs of the community may be ideal.
“During the pandemic, I was able to do several trials involving witnesses, internationally, using multiple interpreters, and the technology held up, not always without any glitches, but those will be ironed out as the technology improves.”
HOW DO YOU THINK THE IMPACT OF NEW TECHNOLOGY IN THE COURTROOM WILL AFFECT HOW YOUNG ATTORNEYS APPROACH THEIR WORK?
“It’s going to be increasingly important to understand that there are people who are resistant to new technology and others who fully embrace it.
“Young lawyers are integrating new technology into their day-to-day practice quite effectively. It’s easy to see where it’s heading and it looks as though it’s going to continue.
“When I was coming out of law school, Westlaw was just starting up and so we were learning to ‘shepardize’ a case and doing legal research on Westlaw. Now, most new lawyers don’t even know what the verb ‘shepardize’ means. Most are pulling cases from public search engines, not even Westlaw.
“I see lawyers doing legal research on their phones, and I don’t have any problem with them looking something up that can educate the court.
“Technology will just continue to allow us to have quicker and easier access to research, and I think that is a good thing.”
SHARE A BIT ABOUT YOUR FAMILY AND WHAT YOU DO IN YOUR FREE TIME?
“My wife and children are a source of constant joy in my life. They also ground me, tell me when I need to slow down, and when I make dad–bad–jokes. I enjoy the law as a hobby and reading. I’m in several book clubs. I am also a huge Los Angeles Lakers fan.
“One of my biggest hobbies is travel, and I’ve always enjoyed taking my time off to go to places that are new to me. I’ve come to the point, now, where I’ve gone back to places that I have previously visited, but that are new to my children. That way, I get to introduce them to places I have seen and see them anew through their eyes.”
GIVING BACK TO THE COMMUNITY IS SOMETHING THAT YOU VALUE HIGHLY. YOU’VE BEEN INVOLVED WITH SEVERAL VOLUNTEER PROJECTS, SUCH AS THE ASIAN-PACIFIC AMERICAN LEGAL CENTER, THE ACLU, AND WESTERN LAW CENTER FOR DISABILITY RIGHTS. CURRENTLY, YOU’RE A DRIVING FORCE BEHIND THE BAR ASSOCIATION’S VALLEY COMMUNITY LEGAL
FOUNDATION. WHERE DOES THAT ‘GIVING BACK’ VALUE COME FROM?
“It largely comes from feeling blessed and the importance of service my parents instilled in me at a young age. In January 1994, after the start of my second semester of my 1L year of law school, the Northridge earthquake struck Los Angeles. There were freeway closures and ‘red-tagged’ buildings.
“All around my law school there were flyers from legal clinics that needed help and assistance with landlord tenant and other issues. This was my community, and we were all impacted, so, I started involving myself with causes that were near and dear to me.
“I went to law school wanting to help others, and when the opportunity to do so came to me, I was not about to let it pass by.”
YOU MENTIONED EARLIER THAT YOU HAD CONSIDERED GOING INTO TEACHING AS A PROFESSION. AS A BENCH OFFICER, AS A JUDGE, DO YOU SEE YOURSELF AS A TEACHER?
“Yes, I do. In the way I conduct my courtroom, I just make sure that everybody understands the rules, has all the information as to their rights, or if there are forms, that they’re available for them.
“When I am making a ruling, I like to write it out or orally explain the reasons for it.
“Respect for our legal system grows when judges explain themselves and when they’re transparent so that people understand the reasons for why they win or lose a case. That way, the public can trust that justice is based on the rule of law.
“The decisions must be rooted in the law and the facts at hand. The people must see the analysis of both the law and the facts as to how the decision came to be.
“I’m going to be teaching constitutional law starting in the fall at the University of West Los Angeles School of Law. Teaching has always been one of the activities I have really enjoyed.
“Judge Robert Takasugi, who I clerked for, started a pro bono Bar Review class about 50 or so years ago, and I’ve been teaching it for about 24 years, since I was a new lawyer.
“It’s a professional responsibilities class for folks who have taken the bar and not passed it the first time and who have an interest in pursuing a career in the public interest.
“It’s free and many of the professors that teach various subjects in the class, are either judges or law professors from different law schools.
“We teach it because we think it’s very important for folks that have an interest in public service to be able to have additional resources in terms of being able to pass the Bar and pursue a career in the law.”
AS A JUDGE, AS A TEACHER, WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU HAVE FOR NEW LAWYERS ON THE THRESHOLD OF STARTING THEIR PROFESSIONAL CAREERS?
“I would tell them that the law is a worthy and noble profession, and your reputation is everything. Guard it with your life.”
Michael D. White is editor of Valley Lawyer magazine. He is the author of four published books and has worked in business journalism for more than 40 years. Before joining the staff of the SFVBA, he worked as Web Content
Editor for the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority.