The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

He once sought asylum in the United States. Now, he’s been named a judge.

A lawyer from Fairfax is the first immigrant from Latin America to be named a circuit court judge in Virginia, following his appointment by the General Assembly last week.

David Bernhard, 54, who was born in El Salvador and sought asylum in the United States before launching a 30-plus-year legal career, will sit on the Fairfax County Circuit Court beginning July 1. He will be joined by Fairfax lawyer David A. Oblon, who was also selected for the court.

Bernhard, who has a firm in Falls Church, has practiced law in a range of areas, including criminal, immigration and personal-injury cases. He is particularly focused on serving low-income Latino clients.

“He’s uniquely in touch with people who are new to our country and new to Virginia,” said state Sen. Scott A. Surovell (D-Fairfax), who backed Bernhard. “In a jurisdiction that’s as large and diverse as Fairfax, it’s important to have diversity on the bench.”

Surovell and others have pushed for more diversity among Northern Virginia judges and prosecutors. Fairfax County Circuit Court has no African American or Latino judges, and its first Asian American judge was appointed in 2013. Virginia has had only a handful of Hispanic circuit court judges in its history.

Bernhard said he sought asylum in the United States in the late 1970s after his father was nearly kidnapped in El Salvador because of his diplomatic work as the honorary consul of Israel there.

Bernhard said he handled his own asylum case while pursuing his studies in the United States. Bernhard got a bachelor’s degree from Brandeis University and a law degree from Washington University in St. Louis.

Surovell said Bernhard has a reputation as a top lawyer in Fairfax County. He said Bernhard has also selflessly devoted himself to helping other lawyers, pointing out the Internet mailing list he runs with hundreds of subscribers among the local legal community.

“I want to be a circuit court judge to do things right,” Bernhard said.