From Beedi Factory Worker In Kerala To Judge In USA: Inspirational Journey Of Surendran K Pattel

Rintu Mariam Biju

5 Feb 2023 4:00 AM GMT

  • From Beedi Factory Worker In Kerala To Judge In USA: Inspirational Journey Of Surendran K Pattel

    Life will always throw challenges your way but what matters is how you come out of it. People who have fought it all and reached the top are always an inspiration to many. One such person is Surendran K Pattel — the 240th Judicial District Court judge in Texas’ Fort Bend County.An Indian by origin, Pattel hails from a remote village in Kerala called Balal and had to face a lot of...

    Life will always throw challenges your way but what matters is how you come out of it. People who have fought it all and reached the top are always an inspiration to many. One such person is Surendran K Pattelthe 240th Judicial District Court judge in Texas’ Fort Bend County.

    An Indian by origin, Pattel hails from a remote village in Kerala called Balal and had to face a lot of challenges since childhood. And, from there, he became a history-making candidate.

    In this interview with Rintu Mariam Biju, Senior Correspondent, LiveLaw, Pattel reveals exclusive details regarding his childhood, his entry into the legal profession, and aspects regarding his latest achievement.

    Exceptional would be an understatement to describe your journey so far, sir. Can you share with our readers what your childhood was like?

    I think every journey would have its ups and downs. In my case, the challenges began since childhood and some of them continue, even today. I was born and raised in a remote village called Balal in Kasaragod, Kerala. I went to a poorly conditioned High School from grades 1 to 10. When I visited that school last month, I was able to note that the condition of the school remains the same, more or less. During my time, families from any background would send their children there but now, it has become a school for children from financially poor families.

    I had 5 siblings. We lost my eldest sister when I was 13 years. That was a shock and still haunts me. I believe that justice was not served in that matter. At that time, I had no idea about my future. Time would tell that this incident became one of the key reasons for my decision to become an attorney.

    My parents were daily wage workers. My deceased sister and other sister were involved in rolling beedis as part of their work. I started helping my sister when I was in grade 9. During the mornings, I helped around in a nearby grocery store and at nights, I engaged in beedi-rolling. My parents never expected anything from me; they never compelled me to go to a particular school or to prepare for exams. Because they didn't know what to expect as they were illiterate.

    Sir, were you always academically oriented? I am told that you graduated at the top of your class in college.

    I was average or maybe, below average during my high school days mostly because I was unable to prepare for my exams. I tried to work and help out my family. I wasn't very focused on my education. But we had a very dedicated set of teachers who encouraged everybody. They are the reason I passed SSLC in 1985. Then I was forced to discontinue my education and I had to work full-time. That year gave me a fresh outlook regarding my life and future. I decided to continue my education and did my pre-degree in government KR Narayanan Memorial College. To advance a career in law, I thought that political science would be the best course to do back then. Looking back, that doesn't make any sense now.

    Staying at a relative's place, I had to work and study during this time. My professor was reluctant to let me write the semester exams owing to my low attendance. I asked him for one chance without giving any reason for my absence because I didn't want any sympathy. Finally, the Head of the Department allowed me to appear for the exams. I ended up topping it.

    Did you always have a passion for law or was it something that realized as you grew up? How were your law school days?

    A few friends and members of the Hosdurga Bar helped me financially during the first year of LLB. But I didn't want to continue that way and therefore, took up a job at a very famous hotel as a housekeeping boy. That solved my financial problems. One of the challenges for me was attending the classes physically. As you are aware, the classes were from 10-4 and I had to work from 2-11. I couldn't attend any classes after 1 pm. But then, I was able to learn by myself and I graduated with a relatively good score.

    What was your career like, in India?

    After graduation, I enrolled as a lawyer and started practicing as an advocate with the Hosur Bar. I joined the office of Adv. P Appukuttan. In those days you never got much work from a senior. In my case, even though the money wasn't very promising, the work was. I was appointed as a legal aid counsel in a case and I was conducting a trial during the same. After my cross-examination, I saw my senior sitting at the back! Since that day, I started getting a lot more work from the civil side. Six months later, I was able to handle almost all civil cases in the office. My senior instilled that confidence in me. I was there for ten years and that experience was very instrumental in all my future endeavors.

    After I got married, my wife got a placement in Escorts Hospital, Delhi. Eventually, I had to move there when we were expecting our first child. I had no other choice but to leave my successful practice behind and move to Delhi. It was a struggling period there. Fortunately, I met a former friend of mine, through whom I got to associate with Dr. Rajeev Dhavan. Though he didn't hire me, he was kind enough to offer me his office for my practice and lent all kinds of support to build up my practice. He also argued one of my cases completely free of cost. I was deeply moved by his humanity.

    Sir, what prompted you to shift to the US?

    It was my wife's dream to work in the United States of America and it so happened that she got placed here. I was very supportive of this decision and wanted her to flourish in her profession. We decided to come to the U.S and get a green card. My last case before the Supreme Court was on October 13, 2007. The very next day, I flew.

    Were there any hurdles/challenges that you had to face while in the US?

    In the US, I had to start from the beginning, again. This was much more challenginga new country, my degree/license had no value, in short, an emotionally challenging period. I joined a grocery store, Kroger, as a produce salesman. After some research, I was able to find out that there's a provision in Texas where a common law practicing lawyer who has seven years of outstanding practice can directly appear for the Bar exam, but s/he must pass the exam within 2 years of arrival. As I couldn't go for review courses, I studied by myself and thankfully, passed on my first attempt. Subsequently, I applied to 100s of law firms but did not even get a single interview call!

    Later, I decided to start my practice. In between, I thought that it would be a good idea to have some US Education to build my career here. I decided to take my master's from the University of Houston in International Law. During my university days in the US, I had the opportunity to write a paper titled “The International Criminal Court and Crimes of Aggression: Beyond the Kampala Convention” which was a hot topic back then. My paper got selected for publication and I went to Cornell University for presentation.

    Sir, what prompted you to contest for election to the esteemed post?

    During my practice in the US, I realized that I had the potential to be a judge. Of course, there were prejudices against my thick accent and all of that when I argued cases. I first ran in 2020 and lost in the runoff. Many told me that my name is the problem as it's not “an American name”. Nonetheless, I ran again in 2022 against a sitting judge in the Democratic Primary. Usually, that's never the practice. The sitting judges are the nominated party candidates and it's very difficult to run against them. Quite understandably, nobody was inclined to support me. I, however, decided to run a positive grass root campaign. I went to the public, and told them what changes I could usher. I think the public believed in me and I won by a good margin-53.7% against the incumbent judge, became the nominee of the Democratic Party and went to the general election.

    It was not a good year for the party in the county where I was running. A couple of sitting judges whom we thought would win, had lost. My opponent was a well-qualified, white attorney, who had been practicing for 30 years. And there were a lot of negative campaigns against me. In the end, I won the election.

    What were your initial thoughts after you got to know that you had won?

    My win is a testimony to many things- one, it doesn't matter how long you have lived in a country, what does matter is how you have served the community during that period. Another important aspect we need to appreciate is the greatness of America as a country. Imagine! Within 5 years of getting citizenship, someone was elected as a judge of that country. It won't happen in any other country. Even though there's discrimination and racism in Texas, there's a great deal of acceptance too.


    Judge Surendran K Pattel with his family

    Who do you think played a crucial role in your life to help you come so far? Who are your role models?

    I view my mother as a symbol of sacrifice. I never saw her complain about anything so far. She takes everything positively. She's my role model despite her illiteracy. She's the one who influenced me the most in my life.

    Even though there were challenges throughout my life, I’ve had many opportunities. I had great support from the people around me, both personally and professionally. My wife was the reason I could practice in the Supreme Court of India, pursue a career in the USA, and become a district judge. Without her, I couldn't have been the history-making candidate that I am today. My family is certainly a huge part of my victory.

    I passed the Bar in 2009. An experienced attorney who was handling a case, couldn't continue owing to his poor health. I was directed to him and his client through a mutual friend. He asked me to take over the case but I was reluctant. The attorney immediately copied the entire file and sent it over. His name is Glendall Adams, a seventh-generation Texan. We had a very cordial discussion about that case and he amended the pleadings. That was the beginning of a newly forged friendship. He and his family became a very important part of my life. They treated me like their son. While working together with him in a case, he cross-examined all the witnesses and for the closing arguments, he informed the judge that I would argue. He was the one who wanted me to sit on the Bench. He passed in 2015 and I was one of the pallbearers. A brown man, from a remote village in Kerala, was accepted completely by a traditionally white family. That says something!

    What advise would you give to young lawyers and law graduates, especially to those who come from financially strapped backgrounds on how to make it in the profession?

    What I want to tell everyone is that you should decide your future. Don't let anyone else decide that. You should be determined about it. Also, no matter whatever goals you achieve, be a good human being. That's the biggest blessing in your life. If you are a good human being, then you will be successful.

    In my life too, the results show that if you are determined, genuine and if you work hard, you can achieve your goal.

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