Judge Exemplifies The American Dream
By Craig Rubadoux, July
|VIERA -- On a recent afternoon in Judge Alli
B. Majeed's Brevard County courtroom, the crowd of more than 30 people awaiting hearings
began to swell, leaving some standing in the aisle and in the courtroom's entrance.
Majeed's bailiff already admonished one person to throw away his bubble gum.
"The judge will not be chewing gum when he's talking to you," snapped Deputy Rudy Montijo.
Majeed delivered introductory remarks, reminding people not to be nervous, that the court belongs to them.
After doling out fines to several traffic violators and passers of worthless checks, he paused briefly for housekeeping, asking people to slide on their benches to make room for others.
"I don't see any movement," he said more sternly. People began to slide, and a series of arraignments began.
It was a typical day in county court, where one defense attorney likened the daily crush of cases to a circus, and Majeed to a talented ringmaster. The court handles criminal misdemeanors, civil cases less than $15,000 and small claims along with disputes between landlords and tenants. Majeed was assigned more than 5,600 such cases last year.
Though Majeed, who just turned 56, still beams with pride at his convincing 1998 re-election to the $119,925-a-year judgeship he was appointed to in 1993, it's a post he didn't envision holding for 10 years. He is the first minority elected to countywide office in Brevard
Earlier this year, for the sixth time, Majeed submitted his name for a vacancy on the circuit court bench, often regarded as a step up in prestige. Circuit court judges handle felony cases and civil matters greater than $15,000 in value, and earn about $13,000 more a year in salary. See Majeed, 3AMajeed, From 1A
But for the first time, Majeed's name was not among the finalists from which the governor made his appointment, leaving him at a crossroads.
The process proved frustrating for a man known for delivering stirring patriotic speeches about the abundant opportunities America provides. Majeed's public passion for the United States, to which he immigrated in 1969, long ago earned him nicknames like "Mr. Patriotism."
Now, as Brevard's second-longest serving county court judge, Majeed says he intends to set aside his circuit court ambitions and focus his energy on becoming the state's top ringmaster. He expects to be named the president-elect of the state conference of county court judges later this month, and pledged not to seek another position during his two-year tenure.
"I've reached a point where I figure it's not going to happen," Majeed said recently of the circuit court appointment. "I'm not going to spend my life pursuing something that proves elusive."
An unlikely journey
For much of his youth, thoughts of becoming a judge, of living in America and even of going to college were more than elusive to Alli Bakash Majeed -- they were unimaginable.
He was born and raised with four brothers and two sisters in British Guyana in South America, where his parents farmed rice paddies in an area so remote it was known as Cinderella, because it was left out of everything.
His ancestors arrived in British Guyana from India as indentured servants, enduring a treacherous crossing over the "kalapani," or black water, with the promise of a short journey and money to bring back to their families.
Recently, gazing over still-undeveloped cow pastures visible through the windows of his chambers at the Moore Justice Center, Majeed recalled vividly the apparent injustice he recognized at a young age, that people who sat in shady offices wearing ties were better off than laborers like his parents who toiled in heat, mud and sharp blades of "razor" grass.
Political struggle against colonialism and racial division roiled Guyana throughout his youth, but one positive, nearly miraculous, outcome was the opening of a high school in his village.
It was the portal to an unlikely journey that led him to first to Howard University, where he earned Phi Beta Kappa honors, and then Catholic University Law School in Washington, D.C.
Majeed smiled while remembering the talented students who comprised the high school's first class, ticking off a list of classmates who also left Guyana to become successful doctors and businessmen. In that intensely political environment, in a rigorous school, as the son of a father who served as his village's unofficial ombudsman, Majeed began forming a passion for law and justice.
But his intellectual achievements came at a cost. Majeed voice softened and he paused to dab tears when explaining his parents' sacrifice -- allowing him and his eldest brother to attend school while they worked in the fields.
Two older brothers were denied equivalent schooling because the cost was too high before the local high school was built. One of those brothers works as a security guard.
"For the first child to make it," Majeed said, "the other children would suffer the consequences."
Powerful work ethic
During a breakfast of eggs and pancakes smothered with jam at Denny's on Wickham Road, Majeed introduced himself to the waitress and nodded to a couple in a nearby booth.
It's a gregarious manner his friend and golfing partner Frank Westwell said is on display weekly on the links and in the pro shop.
"He's almost a permanent campaigner in that way," says Westwell, a former adviser to two British prime ministers who now contribute to Majeed's campaigns.
Majeed is up for re-election next year and shows no sign of taking the contest for granted, whether or not he is opposed. It's part of the work ethic he said his parents imparted to him and life experience that enable him to relate to disparate groups of people.
Among Brevard attorneys, Majeed's years of legal practice in Philadelphia earned him distinction as a savvy urban lawyer, one who developed a reputation as a smooth talker upon arriving to work in Brevard in 1988 as a felony prosecutor.
"He had a lot of street smarts," said State Attorney Norm Wolfinger, who hired Majeed from the Orlando Public Defender's office. "He could talk to rich people or poor people, and that's definitely an asset."
Majeed has been a keynote speaker for dozens of community, religious and educational groups in Brevard, enjoying each opportunity to promote democracy and Constitutional law, particularly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. And though he hesitates to say so, he knows that activism helps combat any disadvantage he might face as a non-white, Muslim candidate.
"I am probably the single person in the county accepted in so many groups," he said. "I can't think of anyone who crosses so many bridges."
Despite his people skills, Majeed's legal acumen as a judge has not always received high marks. In an anonymous poll conducted by the Brevard County Bar Association in 2001, Majeed's analytical ability was rated "below average." In another survey five years earlier that ranked judges' integrity and qualifications on a scale of low, average or high, 24 percent of respondents said he was unqualified, while 16 percent rated him highly qualified.
All but one of the six other county court judges was rated unqualified by at least nine percent of respondents. Only one had more unqualified votes and fewer highly qualified votes than Majeed.
Majeed chalked up the numbers to a small group of private lawyers dissatisfied with his decisions. But as with the circuit court appointment, they seem to defy his efforts to improve himself and rise above a situation over which he has little control.
Some of Majeed's supporters speculate he doesn't have the political clout to win the governor's ear; that he doesn't enjoy support among the local bar since he never practiced law in Brevard; or that his ethnic and religious background may not be the right fit for the times.
But most, Majeed included, simply say other qualified candidates have won out.
Others contest the premise that a county court judgeship is less prestigious that one on the circuit court.
County vs. circuit
"County judges arguably have a more important role than circuit judges because they are on the front lines -- the soccer mom who gets a speeding ticket, evictions and DUI cases," said Doug Beam, a trial lawyer and past president of the bar association.
Those first impressions of the system combine to form a crucial popular opinion its fairness, legal observers say, and Majeed's strengths seem well suited to those needs.
"A lot of people really don't understand what's happening to them in court," said Andrew Weinstock, an assistant public defender who has worked in Majeed's courtroom for about six months. "He's patient with people and takes the time he needs to take so they understand what's going on and what their rights are."
Majeed described a county court judge as one who does not decide intellectual issues each day, but who is presented with profound human issues. And an understanding of those issues is what he most revered in his parents, who never learned to read or write.
As in any career or at any other level of the judiciary, Majeed said it has been only natural to seek advancement, though 11 years ago friends told him he was crazy to quit his job and run for the office. Not attaining his goal only presented different opportunities, he said.
"That's life," Majeed said. "That's what America is all about always having a sense of opportunity somewhere else."