By Kenneth Tiven in Washington
To understand Houston, Texas, it helps to know that it is the largest landlocked municipal area in the USA, with roughly the equivalent in population to Hyderabad. The city and its immediate surrounding communities are about 70,00,000 people. Ft. Bend County is on the southwest corner of Harris County, which is Houston proper.
Surendran K Pattel and Juli A Mathew have been elected municipal court judges there. Pattel grew up in Kasaragod, Kerala, in a poor family, dropping out of 10th grade to become a beedi roller. Mathew, who won a second term on the municipal court in Ft. Bend County, is from Thiruvalla, Kerala. She was sworn in via video conference while visiting her in-law’s house in Kerala.
Pattel’s journey is one of determination. Growing up poor in Kasaragod, he took odd jobs while in school to keep his family afloat financially. Circumstances forced him to drop out of school in the 10th grade. He then became a full-time roller of beedis at Bharat Beedi, which claims it makes 60 million beedis a day for sale across India. Despite multiple obstacles, he became a lawyer, borrowed money from his friends to enroll in university, and worked while studying. In 1995, he obtained a law degree.
In 2007, Pattel’s wife was recruited as a nurse in a prestigious medical facility in the US. So, with their daughter and another baby on the way, the couple moved to Houston. Pattel took care of their daughter and worked as a salesman. He says: “From being a successful lawyer in the Supreme Court of India to being a salesman. You can see the emotional issues involved in that transition. I went through a lot of emotional frustrations and a state of depression.”
Deciding to continue his legal career, he studied and passed the Texas bar exam on the first attempt. He practiced law, lost his first try for an elected judgeship, but came back in November 2022 to win.
His answers to questions for Ballotpedia’s Candidate Connection about why he was seeking election give an idea of his determination and personality.
What areas of public policy are you personally passionate about?
As an attorney and a judicial candidate, I am passionate about the law, justice, and equality under the law. As an elected public servant, I would be determined to run my courtroom in as efficient a manner as possible, committed to the ideal of reducing court backlogs.
None of this is meant to suggest that I would ever advocate a rush to judgment. At the same time, we must never forget the legal maxim “justice deferred is justice denied”. Every person who enters an American courtroom—be he/she the defendant or a plaintiff—is entitled to our immediate respectful attention.
What is something that has been a struggle in your life?
I was born into a hardscrabble existence in my native India. While I had a loving and supportive family, education was not a priority. Still, I managed to work my way through college and law school. Furthermore, once I began to practise law, I was determined to help my nephew, the son of my widowed sister. In the end, I put him through law school, too. The struggle to succeed was real; the rewards have been immeasurable.
Is there a particular judge, past or present, whom you admire?
Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg
Juli A Mathew, an Indian-American from Thiruvalla is the first Indian-American to be elected to the bench in Texas. Four years previously, when she won, she was the first woman on the bench in Ft. Bend County. “My selection will instill confidence in people, especially Indians and other people from the Asian community, that it is very much possible,” she said.
Judge Mathew was the Associate Municipal Judge in Arcola, Texas, and a practising attorney for 15 years, with experience in civil litigation, probate, and criminal matters. Her peers voted her to be the Administrative Judge for the County Courts. She also headed the first Juvenile Intervention and Mental Health Court.
—The writer has worked in senior positions at The Washington Post, NBC, ABC and CNN and also consults for several Indian channels