Ravi Bhalla made headlines this past election season for being the first Sikh-American elected to a mayoralty in New Jersey, and for an unfortunate leafleting incident leading up to that victory. But, before all that, he made a name for himself as a civil rights attorney in New Jersey, handling cases over mandatory drug testing for students in Hunterdon, forced disembarkation of a Sikh-American on a commercial flight, and surveillance of Muslim-Americans in New Jersey by New York police.
Bhalla, a partner at Florio Perrucci Steinhart & Fader in Rochelle Park, the firm of former Democratic New Jersey Gov. James Florio, won the Nov. 7 mayoral election, beating a large slate of candidates. Bhalla, raised in Montville, already was a councilman in Hoboken, since 2009.
“I didn’t take a day off since June 20,” when he announced his candidacy, Bhalla, a Democrat, told the Law Journal.
Apart from being the first Sikh mayor in New Jersey, he is one of only a handful of Sikhs to have achieved that office nationwide, he said.
Leading up to Election Day, unfortunately, apparently altered campaign flyers targeting Bhalla urged voters not to let “terrorism take over.”
Bhalla called the flyers “reprehensible” and said “the Sikh turban represents the opposite of terrorism”—namely love and equality. (Police launched an investigation in an attempt to identify the people responsible for the flyers.)
Bhalla addressed the Law Journal’s questions about the race and his legal career. The responses were edited sparingly, for style and clarity.
How did you get involved in local politics?
When I started my own law firm as a solo practitioner in 2005 in Hoboken, one of my first clients were two City Council members, one of whom was running for mayor. The mayor at the time filed a lawsuit against my clients to compel them to vote to adopt a budget. Their refusal to do so allegedly caused a shutdown of all nonessential city services and was crippling Hoboken government. I successfully litigated an order to show cause filed by the city of Hoboken against my clients before Assignment Judge Maurice Gallipoli (now retired). This litigation was my first exposure to Hoboken politics.
How has your legal background and practice influenced your political life, and vice versa?
My legal background has given me a heightened ability to intersect complex legal issues brought before the City Council in various areas of law, from workers’ compensation matters, to land use and redevelopment law, to civil rights and employment mattes and labor law.
My political life has not had an appreciable influence on my legal background. But I would make one critical observation: being involved in politics has given me a heightened appreciation for the practice of law. Unlike politics, as a litigator, our conduct is governed by rules, legal precedents, and a variety of checks and balances to ensure the possibility of a just result. The judicial structure in New Jersey is such that a practitioner and litigant are offered insulation from impermissible conduct. In politics, on the other hand, there literally are no rules of professional conduct. Adversaries can simply manufacture falsehoods with no basis in fact or evidence with impunity. The more structured environment of the practice of law is a stark contrast to my experience in politics.
The intersection is nothing new, but what special considerations, challenges and advantages do attorneys have in taking on government roles?
Government is based on the law, so as an attorney, it is invaluable to have legal experience. This provides a government official with heightened knowledge of what is permissible under relevant laws, how to navigate complex governmental and legal issues, and how to go about seeking remedies in the courts where required.
Do you have any insights on the flyer incidents that flow specifically from your experience as a civil rights attorney?
The flyer incident is simply a highly unfortunate and personally hurtful demonstration of the use of hate in the public square. I cannot comment further on the mater because it is the subject of an active police investigation.
How important is diversity among political candidates, and among law firms and other organizations employing attorneys? What is the best way to improve matters?
Diversity is critical for law firms and nonlegal corporations because hiring diverse and woman attorneys is simply a smart business practice for law firms and corporations. We are growing into a more diverse and globally interconnected society in America, and the needs of clients and organizations are better met from a business standpoint with the inclusion of diverse and women attorneys. Forward-thinking law firms and corporations will place a premium in ensuring diversity among law firms, and particularly training diverse and woman attorneys to develop the skills to become partners at their firms or in leadership positions at their corporation. It is also good for political candidates because government should reflect the people it represents. Right now, minorities and women are disproportionately represented in the public sector, but this is changing with time.
The best way to improve matters is to “walk the walk.” It’s great to talk about diversity, and form diversity committees within law firms and have diversity programs at companies. However, this means little if law firms do not hire diverse and women partners, and corporations do not hire diverse attorneys from within, as well as retain diverse attorneys to serve as outside counsel. There is much room for growth in this area.