News & Commentary written by Lee Gelernt

Back to News & Commentary
A photo of Lee Gelernt

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 major 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 the House and Senate. 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.

In recent 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. Lee’s work on this case is featured, among other places, in the 2020 documentary “The Fight” and in a July 2018 New York Times Magazine cover story about the ACLU.

–Successful challenges 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 and Biden administration’s use of the Title 42 public health laws to summarily expel migrants without an asylum hearing, based on the claim that the policy was necessary because of COVID-19.

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 Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, NPR, 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, VICE, The Circus, The Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj, Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, and numerous other shows, documentaries, books 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 Coff in of the First Circuit Court of Appeal.

Prior to Law School, he received a M.Sc. from the London School of Economics, and a B.A. from Tufts University where he was on the varsity basketball team.