Simeon Notskov, first Bulgarian judge in the US: I decide from 15 to 20 cases a day
I do not have contested decision so far, I have investigated even a police boss for misuse of moneyViktoria Penkova
When I was in the second grade, I grazed my grandfather's goats in the town of Melnik, and now I dream of being a Federal judge. My grandmother kept telling me, "You have grown very old, you have to get married," and I was only 35 years. I was threatened more when I was a prosecutor, one man was even waiting for me with a bat, but I told him "First I will break the bat in your head, and then I will put you in jail," judge Notskov tells Telegraph newspaper in an interview.
Mr Notskov, how did you manage to make the American dream come true and become the first Bulgarian judge in the US? You have been administering justice for 7 years now, which means that you have become a judge as early as at 28 years…
It all started when I came to America. My story is similar to any other person’s story who comes here without money, without connections, without English, and without anything. I have achieved everything thanks to the quantity and quality of the work I have done. Some people, who come to the US, want to make some money and go home. Others try to earn some money and buy a small house where to live peacefully. Another group of people like me who are ambitious and hardworking are constantly working and working hard and they want to realise the opportunity they have been given.
You arrived in America with a green card. Which year did this happen?
In 1999, when I was in the seventh grade, my father came to know that we had won a green card. He told my brother and me first to complete the school year. My brother was in the ninth grade then, after which we left. In practise, I have been here for 20 years now, and we left Bulgaria in June 2000. I was born in the town of Blagoevgrad, we lived there, but like most people, we spent the weekends and all the summer in the countryside. There is a village near Melnik, Vinogradi, my grandfather comes from there, and we spent our time there. We have relatives also from the towns of Rozhen and Sandanski.
In the beginning, when you arrived in the US, what was the most difficult thing for you?
I had big difficulties with the English language in the beginning. I did not even study English at school and when one cannot hear and talk the appropriate language, it is even more complicated. We lived initially in a poor neighbourhood with foreigners - Indians, Pakistanis, Arabs, Africans and here and there some Bulgarian people. We had borrowed a lot of money before that in order to leave for America. My mother and father rushed towards working hard from the very beginning, so that we could return this money. My brother and I also started working along with the school. We enrolled immediately in a college, where I started in the ninth grade. Since our parents were at work, my brother and I had to manage by ourselves. Then we got on the subway, we did not even know how to load money and buy a ticket, but we had to go to the downtown and to apply and enrol for school. He was 16 years old, I was 14, and I still do not know how we managed to cope in this big city. Until that time, the highest block I had seen in Blagoevgrad had 14 floors. Suddenly, we had to go up here to the 35th floor in order to apply and enrol in school.
Yes, but you managed!
Can you imagine that in the second grade, I helped my grandfather in grazing his goats in Melnik, and at the age of 14 I was in America? From the very beginning, I had a passion inside, given by God, but one needs also a good upbringing and guidance from their family. The combination of these two factors was good with me. We were determined at 100% to use such an opportunity and to realise ourselves in the US.
What kind of problems did you have at school?
I had a teacher who taught a fast computer typing. Here, if you cannot type fast, things do not work out for the most part. My teacher was Polish, their nationality are elderly immigrants to America. I realised from the very beginning that the first feature which people differentiate me from was not whether I was short, thin or fat, with a crooked nose, but where I came from. And people were judging according to this. My teacher encouraged the class from the beginning to laugh at me when I could not turn on my computer. He used to say, "Oh you Bulgarians, where did you come from, did you live in caves before?" Then I decided that I would have a personal revenge if I manage to write faster than him, and I succeeded. Finally, I told him: "We, Bulgarians do not have much, but we can do a lot when we make up our mind to do it," and he felt offended. Although I was the best in the whole class, he deliberately put me an average mark. These are immigrant stories of personal vendettas (he is laughing), but I have fought many battles.
You told me that firstly you were a builder, a waiter, a food delivery boy. Did you do it in order to pay for your studies at Berkeley, the University of California?
Initially, I did it so that we could return the money we had borrowed in order to leave for the US. The amount was over $10,000. My father said that first, we need money to pay for accommodation and food, and he even sold our garage and our car for this purpose. In Bulgaria my parents worked at the market, my mother was selling clothes. I even took all my toys to a stall and sold them - my accordion, tennis rackets, skateboard etc. in order to contribute to the family budget so that we can come to America. I realised at the age of 14 that this was the most important thing for my family and I could not help but get involved. Then we thought we have been burning the back routes and there was no way to go back, no way to take a loan, to leave and to fail afterwards and return. We had to succeed at all costs. Firstly, I started washing dishes in an Arabic restaurant not to take money from the family budget. I was there Friday night from 5pm, when I finish school, until 5am in the morning. Then I continued working during the weekends too. I worked illegally because in America, you have to be at least 16 years old in order to work, and I did not have that age. The managers of the restaurant realised that I was an immigrant and told me they could not pay me much, so they gave me $5 per hour. Later, I had the opportunity to work for a Serb who had a company for arranging documents, especially X-ray images in hospitals. They paid me already $10 per hour there, for working hard 12 hours per day.
What did you buy with the first saved money?
A very old motor car – Toyota car. I started delivering food by it. I decided that I would earn more money with this job, so I moved from the hospitals to this business. Then I started saving money for a better car. Additionally, my family and I started thinking to buy a house in another district because ours was horrible. Some robbers were breaking my car window twice a month because they wanted to steal its radio set, but they were such ignoramus that they could not take it because it was fixed with four bolts. We had to get out of this district. However, in the summer I worked in the construction field. My father also worked as a builder for a Chinese man. So daytime for three months in the summer period I was working as a builder, and in the evenings, I was delivering food. Apparently, however, the construction work is in our blood, because my brother graduated later the Northwestern University and now he is a director of a construction corporation. I chose to study at Berkeley.
What made you choose Berkeley, one of the most prestigious universities in the world?
Many friends and colleagues tried to dissuade me, saying: "Why should you give so much money for Berkeley, it is $50,000 per year and additionally $25,000 for expenses, total $75,000." I did not have that much, but I took a loan and went to California. From an early age I learned that, the calibre of people you will compete with is very important in America and then the doors you will open for yourself. In the University in Berkeley only 7% of the candidates were admitted. If 100 people apply, for example, 93 of them will be cut, and seven candidates will be admitted. You study there together with children of ministers, chairpersons, supreme judges and presidents. I have fellow judges all over the world now.
Many people would want to know how do you succeed, what is your secret?
First, I believe in myself, and second, I work harder than any other competitor does. My secret to succeed is not because I am the smartest, but because of the inhuman quantity of work I am doing.
You were a prosecutor, what kind of cases did you work on?
Yes, I was a prosecutor for a year. While I was doing my PhD in Law, I was working as a trainee prosecutor in Chicago. There I decided mainly construction cases and cases of shops that sell expired goods, such as medicines or food. The third group of cases I worked on were connected to the traffic: failing to stop for a red light or someone hits someone else. When I graduated Berkeley, then I had two options - to work in a private office, where one is treated as a slave for an awful amount of work, or to work for the government. I have chosen the second option.
Which was your most dangerous case as a prosecutor, you said that you have received many threats by bandits?
We were dealing with job fraud. I served about nine-ten state agencies whose cases came to me. One of them was a police office. There I had a case of a police boss who was taking 66% of his police salary, claiming that he had been injured during his service. He said that he was staying at home, but it turned out not to be the case. I asked his bank for information on what money he had deposited there. At first, the bank refused to give me this piece of information, but I managed finally. When I checked the statement, it turned out that he has been working in the construction field, particularly in mechanics, and he has been earning money while taking at the same time 66% of his salary. Wise guy, really! He felt intangible as he had political connections. However, I found witnesses he worked for, and they came to court. He was eventually convicted of fraud at first instance. I had many similar cases. There was a lot of trouble; there were people who began to hate me.
And you were not afraid of it?
I have been practicing karate, boxing, taekwondo since I was a child in Bulgaria. I am not scared of physical confrontation. However, the problem is that there are many weapons in America. Almost everyone carries a gun at their waist. I have it too, but I keep it at home for self-defence. There were people who wanted to frighten me. I had a case of a man carrying a bat and waiting for me to go out of the gym. He said, "Hey, I'm going to break your car now." And I told him “First I'll break the bat in your head, then I'll put you in jail because you tried to beat a prosecutor". He got in the car, made circles around me and threatened me, but finally he left. But look, even if somebody hits me with the bat, what of it, I was hit many times, even my nose was broken, this will be just the next time. The most important thing in a clash is to stay calm. If someone comes to shoot me, it is different thing (he is laughing).
Being a judge, do you receive threats because the cases you are conducting are for millions of dollars? One can be killed directly for that.
I receive fewer threats now, less watching and following, it is easier for me. The suits are against corporations. One of my largest cases, you know, was against Trump Tower. Then we even opened the doors of the courtroom so that people could hear what was going on inside. Six of Trump's lawyers entered the court, and I told them, "What's going on, you are going to fill the building only with lawyers." I had to deliberately speak loudly so that everyone could hear me. I remember now, as you asked me about the threats, that my favourite movie as a child was Octopus with Corrado Cattani. I lived with the conviction that if the mafia even confronts me, they would not surpass me, they would not outplay me. This is the way I think and I am not afraid. I have just one soul and I cannot lose it. Trump’s case, for example, was previously suggested to several of my colleagues, but they refused to take it on the grounds that it was due to political bias. We are judges and we should not have such. So far, I have not a single returned or contested decision.
Probably, many of your colleagues envy you.
Yes, surely. I also have such colleagues who openly hate me. A Greek woman, for example, had warned another colleague of ours that Bulgarians are thievish people. However, I am not interested and I make more decisions than they do. Sometimes 15-20 decisions per day are enough, but it depends on their complexity. Large cases like “Trump”, for example, consist of 40 to 50 pages and they take more time. However, you cannot have just one case per month. If one case is decided for 3 months because it is more complicated, for example, at the same time I can have 130 other cases. The competition here is very fierce.