By Arthur Lightbourn
In the 1999 Denzel Washington movie "The Hurricane," Rod Steiger plays the part of the federal district court judge who freed African-American middleweight boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter after serving 19 years in prison for a crime he did not commit.
The judge ruled that Carter, a world middleweight crown contender at the time of his arrest for a triple homicide in a New Jersey bar in 1966, had not received a fair trial in a prosecution "based on racism rather than reason."
H. Lee Sarokin, now 81 and a North County resident, was the real-life judge in that high profile case 25 years ago.
Sarokin (pronounced "Sár-o-kin") retired from the bench and moved from New Jersey to California "for the weather" and to be closer to his children in 1996.
Earlier, in 1996, Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole targeted Sarokin in his campaign rhetoric as being one of six Clinton-appointed federal appellate and district judges who were "liberal activist judges."
In a letter to President Clinton explaining his decision to resign and retire, Sarokin wrote: "In the current political campaign, enforcement of constitutional rights is equated with being soft on crime and indeed, even causing it."
But Sarokin still likes keeping an eye on the law and politics, two of his favorite subjects, writing regular blogs for the Huffington Post and X-Judge, playwriting, walking the course while playing golf and, for the last five years, drumming with the Joe Satz (jazz) Trio.
He also, on occasion, involves himself in mediation, arbitration, neutral evaluation, private judge and jury trials, as an expert witness and special/discovery master.
Recently, he and his musician buddies, keyboardist Joe Satz and bassist Rocky Smolin, played a Friday night gig to a packed house at Delicias Restaurant in Rancho Santa Fe.
"We love having an audience," he said, "but I think we also enjoy very much just playing for our own pleasure. We frequently get together here at the house and just play."
Sarokin was born in Perth Amboy, N.J. His Russian-born father, who immigrated to the U.S. with his family when he was 3, was, for much of his early professional life, a newspaper reporter who accomplished his dream of owning and publishing five weekly newspapers in New Jersey.
Playing drums is and isn't something new for Sarokin. He began with his older brother's drum set when he was 12, played all through high school and through four years at Dartmouth College while earning a bachelor's degree in sociology.
"The highlight was in 1949," he recalled, "when six of us were hired [as a band] to go on a student ship to Europe, free passage over and back, which made it great. Believe it or not, I went to Europe with $50, and when we arrived in Rotterdam, I purchased a bicycle for $35, which left me $15.
"We literally played our way (while cycling) through Europe. Our desire was to end up in Paris. Everybody welcomed us. We were American musicians playing modern jazz. I don't think we paid for a meal or a place to stay on the entire trip."