President’s Message: Immigration Perspectives, Interview with Presiding Judge Barry Baskin

When focused on the theme of Immigration in the Contra Costa County legal community, our own Presiding Judge Barry Baskin could be “Exhibit A” of a genuine success story. I would like to thank Judge Baskin for being so candid in sharing his background and experiences. Additionally, thank you to CCCBA Communications Director Carole Lucido who interviewed Judge Baskin and participated in the discussion below.

Lucido: Thank you Judge Baskin for sharing your personal experiences with the immigration process with all of us. Let’s start with where you were born.

Presiding Judge Baskin: I was born in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Lucido: How did you decide to be an attorney?

Presiding Judge Baskin: It was a foregone conclusion, my grandfather founded the law firm that I eventually became managing partner of, so I was the third-generation lawyer. Both my brother and I just took it for granted that we’d become lawyers. It was just in our family, it was what we’d do. During summer breaks we’d watch the great trial lawyers doing cross examining. I watched the cross examination in the Steve Biko case – a famous trial where the government police had killed an anti-apartheid protestor and then tried to cover up that they had done so. There was an inquest and these famous trial lawyers were cross examining the police officers.

Lucido: You were how old then?

Presiding Judge Baskin: I was in my senior year in high school. I was so fascinated that they were able to get the truth out from the art of cross examination. It seemed like such a fabulous skill to be able to get at the truth, that I wanted to be a trial lawyer. I took a different path than my grandfather and father, we had different specialties. My grandfather was a criminal defense lawyer and my father was a nationally renowned family law lawyer.

Lucido: What kind of law did you want to practice?

Presiding Judge Baskin: I wanted to be in a courtroom. I started off representing banks and corporations and insurance companies in South Africa and I got to do a lot of trials there. But while I was at law school, apartheid was entrenching itself and it became clear that there was going be a violent end to apartheid – I wasn’t even sure if it would be the end of apartheid. It might have been the beginning of some serious genocidal issues that were starting to develop in South Africa.

Whites who were in custody were not dying, but blacks who were being arrested for protesting were mysteriously jumping out of windows, slipping on bars of soap in the shower and things like that. I didn’t think they’d ever reach a peaceful resolution, so in the early 1980s I made a decision soon after I had become the managing partner of my law firm to leave with my family and my children. That was a very tough decision, a very emotional one. Lifelong family and friends and ties to the law firm would be severed. In addition, South Africa doesn’t allow you to take out all your money.

Lucido: So you came without any money?

Presiding Judge Baskin: They allow you $30 or $40,000 to move out now. The rest has to be in a blocked account that the government controls and you can’t take it out.

Lucido: Could you give it to your family?

Presiding Judge Baskin: Of course, that’s what I ended up doing. That doesn’t solve the problem of arriving here virtually penniless.

The first thing I decided was to do was the Bar exam. I hadn’t been to a law school here, and couldn’t attend a bar course here because I had trials every week so it was very difficult. I flew out one week and took the Bar exam in Oakland and fell in love with San Francisco and the East Bay and decided if I were to pass that’s where I was going to settle. Fortunately, I passed the Bar the first time without attending a Bar course or anything. That was lucky, it was almost a fluke looking back on it. The laws here are very different to how they are there. I then began the process of interviewing law firms for possible job offers. Pillsbury Madison & Sutro law firm ended up hiring me because of my trial experience. I went from managing partner to first-year associate.

It was very difficult for me, they put me in an anti-trust group. So for my first two years here I had to practice in an area that doesn’t exist in South Africa or most places in the world. It’s really just an American concept. The transition doing that was difficult, but it was worthwhile.

I was very conscious growing up that I was lucky to be born white. I was in a white family with servants who were black, in a position of privilege going to the best schools, and the best law school because I was white. I was very aware of the fact that if I had just been born black things would be very different.

My first lucky break was getting the job with Pillsbury and that’s where the immigration issue comes in. Because I was a South African citizen and of course didn’t have a work permit or a visa to come to the U.S. When I wrote the Bar exam I came in on a tourist visa. When I interviewed for my job, I was still on that same visa. When they hired me the problem became you can’t hire a tourist. You have to have a work permit. My second break was that they wanted to hire me badly enough that they hired an immigration lawyer who did the necessary paperwork to get me a temporary work permit. It’s never ceased to amaze me the talent that the immigration lawyers have to get such a permit. You can only get the temporary permit when there is a shortage to get a certain kind of worker. My lawyers managed to convince the INS that there was a shortage of people of my particular skill set and I got the temporary work permit.

Lucido: Did it take long?

Presiding Judge Baskin: It did, it took about eight months. I had to wait in South Africa for about eight months while they processed that paperwork and then I could come out here. I shudder to think how long it would be today and even if it would be possible for my lawyers under this regime to get the temporary work permit I was able to get.

I did fairly well at Pillsbury and got recruited by the firm that I ultimately became a partner of – and that was my next lucky break. When I became a partner at that law firm (Farrow, Bramson, Baskin & Plutzik), I hired an immigration law firm to convert my temporary work permit to a permanent work permit, a so-called green card. As soon as the five-year residency requirement was fulfilled, I became a U.S. citizen together with my family. It was a very proud day when we showed up in San Francisco to get sworn in by a U.S. federal judge who administered the oath to everyone. It was televised and my family to this day still has the clipping from the ceremony. We’ve always been very proud since to be U.S. citizens. For us it is a point of pride to fly the flag on July 4th. It’s upsetting to us that some people see flying the flag as a partisan issue and upsetting to us now to observe that immigration and immigrants are under attack. Reliving in a very similar way what was experienced during the Second World War by, in particular Asian immigrants, but now it’s focusing on all immigrants. While the campaign is being raged against illegal immigrants it’s clear that it’s targeting immigrants in general. Changes in policy; what kinds of people will get visas; clearly it’s being slanted away from minorities and favoring whites and white countries. It’s disturbing to me to see that trend developing.

Lucido: How did you determine you wanted to be a judge?

Presiding Judge Baskin: The judge part came, again, through some luck that I had in my career. In my law firm where I became a partner I was the lead trial counsel and I ended up having some fortunate trial results in front of some judges including judges from this county and they encouraged me to go down this path. I used to quip over the years ‘What are the chances of a Jewish, white man from South Africa without an American law degree making it to become a judge?’ They would chuckle and say, ‘You should have faith.’ Justice Ruvolo and Marchiano both actively encouraged me to seek a judgeship. It was much to my surprise that I became the first South African to be appointed and I’m proud of that. It’s always been a source of pride for me and the job has been a huge source of satisfaction.

Lucido: Is it a lot different from being an attorney?

Presiding Judge Baskin: It is. When you are a lawyer you are advocating for one side or the other and you aren’t too concerned about what the right thing is, you are always doing the best you can for one side or the other. When you are a judge you are concerned about both sides and doing what the right thing is. That is far more satisfying for me then being on one side. It is rare that one side is completely right and the other side is completely wrong. But the beauty of being a judge is you can figure out justice and where the truth lies. I like that part of being a judge the most.

Lucido: I know you spoke about the importance of judicial independence at the Installation lunch.

Presiding Judge Baskin: I experienced the undermining of judicial independence in South Africa and what it led to. It led to apartheid. It worries me here seeing similar attacks that I witnessed as a teenager and as a law student on our tradition and I’m worried because I don’t think people realize how weak the judiciary is. The judiciary is not like the Executive branch and it’s not strong like the Legislature. The Legislature has a strong presence in the public, people vote for legislators. But the judiciary on the other hand isn’t represented, it doesn’t have people to speak for it – only the Bar can speak for judges. Judges aren’t allowed to speak for themselves, the canons prevent that. It’s easy for politicians, it’s easy for the Executive branch, it’s easy for the Legislative branch to make attacks on judges. Judges cannot stand up for themselves, they count on Bar Associations to stand up for them.

Lucido: Is there anything else you would like the readers of Contra Costa Lawyer to know?

Presiding Judge Baskin: I think we are a diverse community and immigrants form a part of a diverse community and I am also the first immigrant Presiding Judge here. I am proud of that. I think our bench these days reflects the diversity of our community, my Assistant Presiding Judge, Hardie is the first openly gay judge that will become our Presiding Judge when my term ends at the end of 2020. The bench is evenly divided between male and female, which it never was when I was appointed. We also have a healthy number of minorities on the bench which wasn’t the case in the past. All of that is good news, our bench is strong and hopefully will be able to maintain our independence despite it being under attack.

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