Lee Gelernt

Deputy Director,
ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project

Lee Gelernt has been an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union since 1992, and works on immigration and national security issues.  He currently holds the positions of Deputy Director of the ACLU’s national Immigrants’ Rights Project, and Director of the Project’s Program on Access to the Courts.  He has argued numerous groundbreaking civil rights cases at all levels of the federal court system, including in the United States Supreme Court and the Courts of Appeals for the First, Second, Third, Fourth, Sixth, Eighth, Ninth, and Eleventh Circuits.   Mr. Gelernt has also testified as an expert before the United States Senate on habeas corpus and judicial review issues.  In addition to his work at the ACLU, Mr. Gelernt is an adjunct professor at Columbia Law School and a visiting lecturer in clinical law at Yale Law School.

Since 2001, Mr. Gelernt has worked on several far-reaching national security cases arising out of the events of September 11 and served as one of only a few human rights observers at Guantanamo Bay for the first military trial conducted by the United States since World II.   In March 2011, Mr. Gelernt argued the case of Ashcroft v. al-Kidd in the U.S. Supreme Court, which challenged 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 there was no probable cause to justify a criminal arrest.   

Among his other national security cases, Mr. Gelernt 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 and Congressman John Conyers 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 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 the immigration area, Mr. Gelernt has litigated numerous important cases establishing the constitutional and statutory rights of non-citizens, in the areas of discrimination, education, due process and access to the courts.  

Mr. Gelernt has received many honors for his work and in 2002 received the 13th Annual Public Interest Achievement Award from Columbia University’s Public Interest Law Foundation.  The American Immigration Lawyers Association has also twice awarded him their national prize for excellence in litigation for his civil rights work on behalf of the immigrant community.  He is a frequent guest speaker at law schools and conferences around the country, and regularly appears in the national and international media, including the NY Times, Washington Post, NPR ABC News, CNN, Wall Street Journal, LA Times, and BBC.  Mr. Gelernt is a 1988 graduate of Columbia Law School, where he was a Notes and Comments Editor of the Law Review.  After graduation, Mr. Gelernt served as a law clerk to the late-Judge Frank M. Coffin of the Fifth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.  Prior to attending law school, he received a M.Sc. in International Relations from the London School of Economics.

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