Anuraag “Raag” Singhal, who was appointed last year to serve as a judge in the 17th Judicial Circuit Court in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., was formally sworn in Jan. 20.
Singhal holds the distinction of becoming Broward County’s first Indian American and first Asian-American judge. Meenu Sasser in Palm Beach County is the state’s first Indian American judge; she was appointed in 2009.
At his investiture ceremony last week, Singhal received a standing ovation and a long round of cheers from the audience, and then hosted an Indian buffet in his courtroom, reported the Sun Sentinel.
The Westfield, New Jersey native was sworn-in in a less formal ceremony Sept. 30, 2011 and has been hearing felony criminal cases at the circuit court since Oct. 3.
Announcing Singhal’s appointment on Aug. 31, 2011, Florida Governor Rick Scott, said, “Raag has practiced criminal trial and appellate work in both state and federal courts and consistently demonstrated an understanding of complex cases.”
“I am confident he clearly understands the importance of the fair application of law and judicial restraint,” said Scott, who appointed Singhal to fill a vacancy created by a resigning judge.
“I am very thankful to Governor Scott for giving me the opportunity to serve the people,” Singhal told India-West.
In the four months since he ascended to the bench, Singhal said that the most challenging aspect of his new job is “the sheer volume of cases.”
A typical day consists of 40 to 45 cases on the docket, ranging from grand theft on the low end to first-degree murder, he said, noting with a laugh that his weekends are free.
Singhal said he tries to clear his hearing docket by 10 a.m., leaving the rest of the day free for trials, which typically take three to five days to complete.
The Wakeforest University alumnus has been practicing criminal law for 20 years. He served as an assistant state attorney in Florida from 1990 to 1993, then established a criminal law practice.
Singhal has represented defendants in more than 30 first-degree murder, death penalty cases. None of his clients has been executed, said Singhal, noting one exception – the infamous Aileen Wuornos, a serial killer who murdered seven men in Florida.
Wuornos was executed by the state of Florida in 2002. She was the subject of two documentaries and the feature film, “Monster,” starring Charlize Theron.
Singhal did not represent Wuornos in the murder trials, but was her attorney after she had been imprisoned, when Wuornos filed a lawsuit accusing prison guards of “harassing her to death.”
“Aileen was difficult to represent because she had volunteered for the death penalty. She wanted to go,” Singhal told India-West. “I tried to talk her out of it, I tried to get her re-evaluated.”
“I wanted to keep her from getting executed,” added Singhal.
In 2002, Singhal wrote to the state Supreme Court that he had spent several hours with Wuornos and doubted whether she was mentally competent to be executed. Wuornos, however, maintained that she was both competent and sane, despite a history of mental illness in her family.
Florida is a death penalty state, but prosecutors currently rarely use that punishment, said Singhal, adding that – as a judge – he was not allowed to have a position on capital punishment.
Singhal and his wife Lisa Kay Mao, an ophthalmologist, have three children: Samantha, 18, Peter, 15, and Julia, 11. The family lives near Ft. Lauderdale.
Singhal’s parents immigrated from India to the U.S. in 1960. His father Gopal, a native of Aligarh, spent most of his career as a research scientist with Exxon. His mother Uma, from Dehradun, was a Montessori school English teacher for several years, before her death in 1990.
Singhal told local reporters that he hoped his appointment would encourage other people from minority backgrounds to enter the practice of law.
Judge Meenu Sasser, who earned her J.D. degree from the University of Pennsylvania Law School in 1995, is currently Circuit Judge for the 15th Judicial Circuit’s Civil Division.