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Lee Gelernt

Deputy Director

ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project


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 argued dozens of important 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 as a legal expert before both houses of Congress. His recent work is featured in the documentary “The Fight.” 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 four years, he has argued some of the country’s highest profile cases, including:

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 Ms. L. v. ICE holding the practice unconstitutional and requiring the administration to reunite the thousands of separated families, which included babies and toddlers. Lee’s work on this case is featured in the 2020 documentary film “The Fight” and in a July 2018 New York Times Magazine cover story about the ACLU.

Successful challenges in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to the Trump administration’s first and second asylum bans.

The first case challenging the president’s travel 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.

A class-action challenge to the Trump administration’s use of the Title 42 public health laws to summarily expel unaccompanied migrant children without an asylum hearing, based on the claim that the policy was necessary because of COVID-19.

Successfully arguing 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 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.

He 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.

Lee has won numerous awards for his work, and has been recognized as one of the 500 leading lawyers in the country in any field.  He regularly lectures around the country, and frequently appears in the national and international media, including in the New York TimesWashington PostWall Street Journal; Los Angeles Times; SF Chronicle; NPR; CNN morning and primetime shows); 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; VICE; The Patriot Act; with Hasan Minhaj; Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, and numerous other shows and podcasts.

Lee graduated from Columbia Law School, 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 Appeal.  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.

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