Lee Gelernt – Biography
Lee Gelernt is a lawyer at the ACLU’s national office in New York. He is widely recognized as one of the country’s leading public interest lawyers and has also been recognized as one of the 500 leading lawyers in the country in any field.
He has argued dozens of groundbreaking civil rights cases during his career, including in the U.S. Supreme Court and virtually every federal court of appeals in the country. He has also testified before both the Senate and House. His recent work challenging the Trump administration’s family separation practice is featured in the documentary “The Fight” (currently streaming on Amazon). In addition to his work at the ACLU, he is an adjunct professor at Columbia Law School, and for several years was a visiting professor at Yale Law School.
During the past few years, he has been the lead counsel in many of the country’s highest profile cases, including:
- Lee successfully argued a national class action challenge to the Trump Administration’s unprecedented practice of separating immigrant families at the border. In 2018, a federal court issued an injunction in L. v. ICE holding the practice unconstitutional and requiring the Administration to reunite the thousands of separated families. Lee’s work on this case is featured, among other places, in the 2020 documentary film “The Fight” (which followed him for several years of the case), and a July 2018 New York Times Magazine cover story about the ACLU.
- Lee successfully litigated challenges to the Trump and Biden administrations’ use of the Title 42 public health laws to summarily expel families and unaccompanied migrant children without an asylum hearing, based on the claim that the policy was necessary because of COVID-19.
- Lee successfully argued the first case challenging the Trump Muslim ban on individuals from certain Muslim-majority nations, which resulted in a federal court in Brooklyn issuing a nationwide Saturday night injunction against the ban only one day after the president enacted it.
- Lee successfully argued challenges in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to both the Trump Administration’s first and second asylum bans.
- Lee argued Rodriguez v. Swartz in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, involving 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 was the subject of a cover story in the Sunday New York Times Magazine.
Over his career, Lee has argued dozens of other notable civil rights cases in the U.S. Supreme Court and the federal Courts of Appeals for the First, Second, Third, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Eighth, Ninth and Eleventh Circuits, as well as federal district courts throughout the country.
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 the cases Lee argued was Ashcroft v. al-Kidd in the U.S. Supreme Court, involving 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 the first major September 11 case 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.
Lee has won numerous national awards for his work. He is regularly asked to speak around the country and give keynote and endowed lectures. He has spoken at virtually every top law school in the nation, and such varied places as West Point, the NAACP National Convention, the ABA national conference, religious institutions, and medical schools.
He is one of the most widely quoted civil rights lawyers in the country, regularly appearing in the national and international media: including:
Print: New York Times; Washington Post; Wall Street Journal; Los Angeles Times; Pro Publica, USA TODAY; national magazines such as The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Harpers, and New Republic; and International papers around the world.
Radio: NPR’s All Things Considered and Morning Edition; BBC Radio, and numerous other national and regional outlets.
- MSNBC morning and primetime shows, including Rachel Maddow, Chris Hayes, Brian Williams, Morning Joe, Lawrence O’Donnell, Hallie Jackson, Andrea Mitchell, Katy Tur, Joy Reid, Ari Melber, and many others;
- CNN morning and primetime shows, including Don Lemon, Chris Cuomo, Kate Bolduan, Poppy Harlow, Ana Cabrera, Briana Keilar, Alisyn Camerota and numerous other shows on a regular basis;
- NBC’s Nightly News and Today Show;
- ABC’s World News Tonight, Good Morning America; and Nightline;
- CBS’s 60 Minutes (including a recent Oct. 2021 episode on family separation, CBS Evening News and CBS This Morning;
- PBS’s The News Hour and Frontline;
- FOX News;
- BBC TV and other international broadcasts;
- Shows such as The Patriot Act; with Hasan Minhaj; VICE; The Circus; Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, and numerous other shows;
- Documentaries including “The Fight” and the recent Spike Lee HBO multi-part series on New York (episode 2);
Podcasts: Lee has been the featured guest on numerous podcasts, include CAFÉ (hosted by Joyce Vance and Preet Bharara); Chris Hayes’ Podcast; and Jill Wine-Banks’ Podcast.
Lee graduated from Columbia Law School in 1988, where he was a Notes & Comments Editor of the Law Review, and is a former law clerk to the late Judge Frank Coffin of the First Circuit Court of Appeals. At the ACLU, he currently holds the positions of Deputy Director of the national Immigrants’ Rights Project, and Director of The Project’s Access to the Courts Program.