Lee Gelernt

Lee Gelernt is a lawyer at the ACLU’s national office in New York.  Mr. Gelernt has won numerous awards for his work and has been recognized as one of the nation’s 500 leading lawyers in any field, a list that contains only a handful of public interest attorneys. He has argued dozens of groundbreaking civil rights cases in the federal courts, including in the U.S. Supreme Court, and has testified as an expert before both houses of Congress.

During the past two years, he has argued some of the most high profile cases involving Trump Administration policies, including:

  • Gelernt successfully argued the first case challenging the president’s travel ban on individuals from certain Muslim-majority nations, which resulted in a federal court issuing a nationwide Saturday night injunction against the ban one day after the president enacted it.
  • He serves as lead counsel in the national class action involving the Trump Administration’s unprecedented practice of separating immigrant families at the border. In 2018, a federal court in San Diego issued an injunction holding the practice unconstitutional and requiring the Administration to reunite the thousands of separated families, which included babies and toddlers. Mr. Gelernt’s work on this case was featured prominently in a July 2018 New York Times Magazine cover story.
  • Gelernt is lead counsel in a challenge to the Administration’s second asylum ban (the transit ban). In August 2019, a San Francisco federal district court issued a preliminary injunction enjoining the ban. He argued the case in the federal district court and will argue the Ninth Circuit appeal in December 2019.
  • He is also lead counsel in the first case challenging the president’s first asylum ban. In December 2018, a San Francisco federal district court issued a preliminary injunction enjoining the ban, which barred asylum for anyone who did not enter at a port of entry. Both the Ninth Circuit and U.S. Supreme Court denied the government’s request for an emergency stay of the injunction. Last month, Mr. Gelernt argued the appeal on the merits of the case in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
  • This Term, he will appear in the U.S. Supreme Court in DHS v. Thuraissigiam, a case where the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that it was unconstitutional to deny asylum seekers the right to seek judicial review in a federal court of the denial of their asylum claims.
  • Gelernt is currently litigating Rodriguez v. Swartz, which he successfully argued in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The case involves the fatal cross-border shooting of a Mexican teenager in Mexico by a U.S. border patrol officer firing from U.S. soil. The appeals court ruling in favor of the boy’s family was the first-ever federal court decision to hold that the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against the use of excessive force by law enforcement applies extraterritorially. The case is now pending in the Supreme Court.

Over his career, Mr. Gelernt has argued dozens of other notable civil rights cases at all levels of the federal court system, including in the U.S. Supreme Court and the Courts of Appeals for the First, Second, Third, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Eighth, Ninth and Eleventh Circuits.

In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, he litigated several high profile national security cases and served as one of only a few human rights observers at Guantanamo Bay for the first military trial conducted by the U.S. since World War II. One of these was the U.S. Supreme Court case of Ashcroft v. al-Kidd, in which he argued the constitutionality of the government’s post 9-11 policy of using the federal material witness statute to investigate and preventively detain terrorism suspects in cases where was no probable cause to justify a criminal arrest.

Mr. Gelernt also successfully argued one the very first major September 11 cases to reach the federal courts of appeals, Detroit Free Press v. Ashcroft, where he represented the media in their lawsuit seeking to prevent the government from holding secret deportation hearings after September 11. In its decision invalidating the government’s secret hearing policy, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals stated that “democracies die behind closed doors” – a phrase that became one of the most cited and well-known admonitions issued by the judiciary in the aftermath of September 11.

In addition to his work at the ACLU, Mr. Gelernt is an adjunct professor at Columbia Law School, and for several years taught at Yale Law School as an adjunct. His speaking engagements have included West Point, the NAACP’s national convention, the American Bar Association’s national conference, and virtually every major law school in the country. He regularly appears in the national and international media, including the New York Times; Washington Post; Wall Street Journal; Los Angeles Times; NPR’s Morning Edition and All Things Considered; CNN; NBC’s Nightly News and Today Show; ABC’s World News Tonight and Good Morning America; CBS’s 60 Minutes, Evening News and This Morning; PBS’s The News Hour and Frontline; MSNBC; FOX News; BBC radio and television; and numerous other shows and podcasts.