By Lonnie Burstein Hewitt
H. Lee Sarokin’s 84-year-long life has been rich in incidents, but what he is best known for took place in 1985, when, as a U.S. District Court judge in New Jersey, he reversed the 1967 murder conviction of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, concluding that Carter did not get a fair trial. The earlier decision, he wrote, was “predicated upon an appeal to racism rather than reason, and concealment rather than disclosure.”
In case you don’t know the Bob Dylan song, or the movie Denzel Washington starred in, Rubin Carter was a middleweight boxer arrested for a triple homicide in a New Jersey bar. There were inconsistencies in the witnesses’ testimony; the only sure thing was: the killer was black, as is Carter.
Previous appeals had failed, but Sarokin’s decision held, and every year on the anniversary of his release, Carter phones Sarokin to thank him.
Sarokin, a Jersey boy who went on to Dartmouth and Harvard Law School, has been living in Rancho Santa Fe since 1996, the year he resigned from the bench. After 25 years as a trial lawyer and 17 years as a judge, he was not pleased with the development of a political climate in which, as he wrote at the time, “enforcement of Constitutional rights is equated with being soft on crime and indeed, even causing it.”
Sarokin is, above all, a believer in the Constitution. Judges, he maintains, are supposed to carry out the law. His mission, to ensure due process, often found him ruling on the side of the underdogs.
In the case he calls his most important, he ruled that warning labels on cigarette packages were not enough to keep tobacco companies from being liable to criminal charges and punitive damages, and forced them to turn over documents that provided the basis for subsequent suits.
“The tobacco industry may be the king of concealment and disinformation,” he wrote.
His retirement did not mean abandoning the law. For years, he did arbitration and mediation, and was Distinguished Jurist in Residence at University of San Diego (USD), giving lectures, meeting with students, and supervising mock trials. He also started a blog, “X-Judge,” which, he confessed, “about two or three people would read, including my wife.”
But mentioning the blog to a friend at MSNBC led to an upgrade: His words ended up on the desk of Ariana Huffington, and he’s been blogging for the Huffington Post ever since.
“They’ve featured 98 percent of my pieces, and I get feedback, which I love,” he said. He responds to the feedback, too, as long as it’s polite.
Sarokin has always enjoyed writing; it’s in his genes: His father was a newspaper writer, and his son writes for ESPN. In 2011, he wrote his first courtroom drama, “Who is the Enemy?” The play, about an innocent terrorist suspect wrongly imprisoned, had readings at San Diego’s Ion Theater, and in Toronto.
“I’d seen a lot of plays I didn’t like,” he said. “And I thought, instead of just griping, maybe I should take a crack at writing one myself.”
He discovered he really loved it. “I’ve had a very active and happy life, but playwriting is such fun for me,” he said. “It’s a thrill to go in and hear your words spoken by actors.”
So one play led to another: ”The Rape of the Chambermaid,” based on the case of a diplomat sued by a hotel maid for attempted rape, had a reading last April at North Coast Repertory Theatre in Solana Beach. And now, on Sept. 23, there’s a reading of Sarokin’s latest, “The Retaliation Defense,” about what happens after a student whose family was killed by a drone strike commits an act of terrorism. The play deals with the effect of money and politics on our judicial system, and whether or not revenge ever justifies murder.
“What prompted it was the Boston Marathon bombing,” Sarokin said. “I asked myself: What could make people want to kill innocent people?”
The venue again is NCRT, for which Sarokin has very warm feelings, reciprocated by the staff.
“Lee is a great North Coast Rep friend and supporter and an amazing individual,” said Artistic Director David Ellenstein. “His plays are a fascinating glimpse into the justice system and issues facing society today.”
Sarokin has other loves besides playwriting. He plays drums in a jazz group, The Joe Satz Trio, and mentors a student at Casa de Amistad in Solana Beach. But his truest love is the law, and his proudest possession is a photo inscribed by Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan, Jr.: “For Lee Sarokin — valiant and stalwart champion of the rule of law.”