Court is still in session for retired United States Circuit Judge H. Lee Sarokin. Only this time, the courtroom is a theater, and Judge Sarokin presides as playwright, writing plays that explore some of today’s most controversial legal issues. It’s a natural fit for a longtime theater lover who wrote over 2,500 opinions in his prestigious legal career. However, like any good judge, he still remains impartial, letting his dramas tell both sides of the story so the audience, as jury, can decide for themselves.
From Audience Member to Author
For years, Judge Sarokin and his wife, Margie, frequented the thriving theater scene in San Diego, from the La Jolla Playhouse to the Old Globe, all easily accessible from their Life Plan Community, Vi at La Jolla Village. But it wasn’t until one night at the theater—memorable for all the wrong reasons—that Judge Sarokin thought about making his own theatrical contribution. “I whispered to Margie, ‘Boy, this is boring,’ and she turned to me and said, ‘Do you think you can do any better?’ I said, ‘Well, I’d like to try!’”
And, as it turns out, the judge has quite a knack for crafting dramas, something likely developed from his many years presiding over compelling cases with the United States Court of Appeals. While he’s most well-known for freeing Rubin “Hurricane” Carter and landmark rulings against the tobacco industry, he’s making a new name for himself as the author of plays like “Traitor or Patriot?,” about government leaks, and “The Wedding Cake,” about religious freedom and discrimination.
Putting His Creative Energy to Work
From that first inclination to produce to today, Judge Sarokin has poured his creative energy into his work, writing nine original plays in only eight years on hot-button, ripped-from-the-headlines issues. His plays have been staged at the North Coast Repertory Theatre in Solana Beach as part of its New Work series. But he hasn’t let that success go to his head. “I have no illusion that these [plays] will one day make it to Broadway,” he said. Instead, he’s content knowing that his work is making an impact on San Diego audiences. “I hear from audience members frequently that they kept discussing the play on the ride home and even over breakfast the next morning.”
When the Play Ends, the Real Drama Begins
And it’s that discussion, that dialogue between audience members, that keeps Judge Sarokin writing, and also what he enjoys most. After the curtain goes down on one of the judge’s plays, the theater hosts a “Talkback” segment, where Judge Sarokin takes to the stage and asks the audience members to voice their opinions. “I try very hard to make it so there is a valid argument on both sides so people have to really think about it before forming an opinion,” he said. If the play fosters a healthy debate and passionate arguments, then he knows he’s done a good job. “I always envisioned this as the audience being a jury confronted with a difficult issue. The Talkback segment is like a jury deliberation out loud. I think that’s why they enjoy it so much and why they come back.”
Inspired by Real Life
Judge Sarokin’s creative output shows no signs of slowing. He’s always on the lookout for inspiration, most often finding it by keeping abreast of world events. He has a voracious appetite for news, which he watches and reads daily. “I live for it! I’ll be reading the paper and think, ‘Gee, this might be what I’m looking for.’” And while he doesn’t have an idea for his next play yet, he’s not worried. “It will come—something always pops up. But it’s got to be provocative or it doesn’t do the job!”