Lee Gelernt, Deputy Director of the ACLU’s National Immigrants’ Rights Project Receives HUC-JIR’s American Jewish Distinguished Service Award - Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion
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Lee Gelernt, Deputy Director of the ACLU’s National Immigrants’ Rights Project Receives HUC-JIR’s American Jewish Distinguished Service Award

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Thursday, December 6, 2018

Lee GelerntLee Gelernt, Deputy Director of the ACLU’s National Immigrants’ Rights Project and director of the Project’s Access to Courts Program, received the American Jewish Distinguished Service Award from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) on November 20, 2018 in New York.

Rabbi David Ellenson, Ph.D., Interim President and Chancellor Emeritus, stated, “A preeminent lawyer at the national office of the ACLU in New York, Lee Gelernt is a dedicated advocate for our American constitution’s highest principles defending justice and human rights.”

During the past 18 months, Gelernt has argued several groundbreaking challenges to Trump administration policies, and successfully argued 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 one day after the president enacted it and eight days after his inauguration. He is currently litigating a national class action involving the Trump administration’s unprecedented practice of separating immigrant families at the border. On June 26, 2018, a federal court in San Diego issued an injunction holding the practice unconstitutional and requiring the administration to reunite the approximately 2,600 separated families.

Mr. Gelernt is also currently litigating a number of other nationally significant civil rights cases, including Rodriguez v. Swartz, which he 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 through the border fence in Nogales, Arizona. The appeals court ruling in August 2018 in favor of the boy’s family was the first-ever federal court decision to hold that the Fourth Amendment applies extraterritorially. The case has received widespread attention and was the subject of a 2016 cover story in the New York Times Magazine.       

Mr. Gelernt also recently argued a major case in the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals on behalf of cities and counties challenging Texas’s anti-sanctuary SB4 immigration law.  In that case, Texas and the Trump administration have argued that the State has the right to compel cities and localities to assist the Trump administration in enforcing federal immigration law. Although the Fifth Circuit declined to facially invalidate most of the law, the ACLU’s challenge remains ongoing in federal district court in San Antonio.

In addition, over the past 18 months Mr. Gelernt, has argued cases in Detroit, Boston, Miami and Los Angeles and the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals concerning habeas corpus and the authority of the federal courts to block the Trump administration’s attempt to remove large classes of long-term residents to Iraq, Indonesia, Somalia and Cambodia, most of whom will face persecution and torture on account of their religion if they are deported. 

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. He has also testified as an expert before the U.S. Senate.  Mr. Gelernt has received numerous honors for his work over the years, and in 2017 was recognized by Lawdragon as one of the 500 leading lawyers in the country in any field.  In addition to his work at the ACLU, Mr. Gelernt is adjunct professor at Columbia Law School, and for many years taught at Yale Law School as an adjunct.  

In addition to his immigration-related work, Mr. Gelernt has litigated 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 was no probable cause to justify a criminal arrest. Mr. Gelernt also successfully argued one the very 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. 

He is a frequent guest speaker around the country, and regularly appears in the national and international media, including the New York TimesWashington PostWall Street JournalUSA Today, NPR, CNN, NBC, ABC, CBS, MSNBC, among many others. In July 2018, Mr. Gelernt’s work was featured prominently in a New York Times Magazine cover story about the ACLU. 

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 First Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals. 


Founded in 1875, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion is North America's leading institution of higher Jewish education and the academic, spiritual, and professional leadership development center of Reform Judaism. HUC-JIR educates men and women for service to North American and world Jewry as rabbis, cantors, educators, and nonprofit management professionals, and offers graduate programs to scholars and clergy of all faiths. With centers of learning in Cincinnati, Jerusalem, Los Angeles, and New York, HUC-JIR's scholarly resources comprise the renowned Klau Library, The Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives, museums, research institutes and centers, and academic publications. In partnership with the Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, HUC-JIR sustains the Reform Movement's congregations and professional and lay leaders. HUC-JIR's campuses invite the community to cultural and educational programs illuminating Jewish heritage and fostering interfaith and multiethnic understanding. www.huc.edu