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."
In Paris, Sarokin and the band auditioned and landed a three-month gig in a Paris nightclub during which time they met legendary jazz saxophonist James Moody, who had just played at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland and was living in Paris.
"They asked us to sit it with them, which we did, almost every night. We would play at our club until about one o'clock, then go over and play with Moody and his group maybe to three, four, five o'clock."
Returning home, Sarokin told his father that James Moody thought he was a terrific drummer so he was thinking of turning professional rather than become a lawyer, as he originally intended since he was 12 or 13, inspired by a book called The Great Mouthpiece about the iconic American trial lawyer William Fallon.
"And my father very kindly said to me, 'I think you ought to go to law school' — and that's what I ended up doing."
After earning a law degree from Harvard, he gave up drumming and didn't resume until he retired and moved to California some 50 years later.
Asked if he ever regretted not becoming a professional drummer, he said, "No, my father was right. ... It's a great hobby, but my professional life (in law) was very satisfying."
For the first 25 years of his legal career, Sarokin was a trial lawyer, litigating complex civil cases and representing both plaintiffs and defendants.
"Students often ask me what was my greatest case. I always try to tell them this in the hope that it might inspire them, that money isn't the most important thing in the practice of law."
He recalls representing an African-American man who, during a curfew imposed during the Newark riots in 1967, was arrested while waiting for a bus at 5 a.m. to go to his job as he had every workday for 15 years. He spent five days in jail.
"I volunteered to represent him and got him out, but it was one of those negotiations.
In 1978, Sarokin, working as campaign finance chairman for his friend and mentor Bill Bradley, helped Bradley win a U.S. Senate seat representing New Jersey.
"I'd had no connection with politics whatsoever and none with fundraising. And Bradley said that's exactly why he wanted me. He wanted someone who had a clean reputation and no prior political connections."
Sen. Bradley recommended him for a federal judgeship and Sarokin was subsequently nominated and appointed in 1979 by President Carter to a seat on the U.S. District Court for New Jersey, where he served for 15 years before being elevated to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals by Clinton in 1994 and serving there until his resignation from the bench in 1996.
During his judicial career, he authored more than 2,000 written opinions, settled some 3,000 cases and presided over more than 1,000 cases, including a landmark case in which a jury rendered for the first time a verdict against a tobacco company and granted a cash award of $400,000 to the family of a woman who died after having smoked for 40 years.
"The tobacco companies eventually had me removed from all those cases because I had been so critical of their conduct," Sarokin said.
His most famous case was that of Rubin "Hurricane" Carter in which, as the federal district court judge reviewing Carter's conviction, found that Carter's constitutional rights had been violated resulting in a three life-term conviction based on the eyewitness testimony of two petty criminals who were later revealed to have received money and reduced sentences in exchange for their testimonies against Carter.
"He calls me every year on the anniversary of his release," Sarokin said. "We've done many programs together at law schools around the country. He's just this remarkable man, wonderful speaker and great inspiration to a lot of people. And he spends his life now helping other people who have been wrongly convicted."
Asked if being a musician had in any way influenced his career, Sarokin said: "My experience with jazz musicians made me much more sensitive to the issue of race because I had an opportunity to play music with a lot of African-Americans. I think that very much influenced my life both as a lawyer and as a judge because I had, I think, a much better understanding of what they faced.
"And when I met James Moody, who was living in Europe at the time and was one of the great musicians and still is, I asked him, why are you here in Paris ... and he talked about the difference in treatment that he received in Paris as opposed to the way he was treated in the States."
Moody returned to the States in 1952.
"But that definitely had a tremendous influence on me," Sarokin said. "I was 19 at the time. That never left me my entire life, that exchange."
Asked if it's sometimes lonely being a Democrat in a predominantly Republican area these days, he said: "Yes. It's definitely a conservative area. I play golf at Morgan Run. They tease me a little bit, but it's all good-natured."