Just three days after president trump issued a travel ban on citizens from seven Muslim nations, Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson sued to block it with a temporary restraining order. By February 3—a week after Trump signed the executive order—U.S. District Judge James Robart ruled in favor of Ferguson, suggesting the ban was not “rationally based.” Helping persuade the judge was Washington state Solicitor General Noah Purcell, a Seattle native and Harvard Law School graduate who argued the case before the court. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the travel-ban block; in June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the restrictions on visitors from six majority-Muslim countries could temporarily take effect, with close family members allowed to travel to the U.S.
Since the election, Ferguson, a fourth-generation Washingtonian and University of Washington graduate, has held weekly meetings with his staff to discuss the Trump administration. “It has become the new normal,” he said at a talk last summer at The Seattle Public Library. So far, his office has been involved with 15 pieces of legal action against the administration—the last (at press time) over the decision to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.
Ferguson decided to file the lawsuit against the travel ban even though, he says, “All the legal experts said the executive order was constitutional and that a challenge was not going to work. I had to go with my instincts—and that paid off.” His team labored around the clock to make it happen. “It was inspiring,” he says.
He has been overwhelmed by the response. “People stop me on the street and hand me letters; they write in deeply moving ways,” says Ferguson. One letter—complete with a sketch of the attorney general—came from a young girl from Iran. “Because you stood up, I can be here,” she wrote.
After Judge James Robart's travel ban ruling, President Trump referred to him as a so-called judge.
Purcell, the 37-year-old wunderkind who argued in front of Judge Robart, and later, before the 9th Circuit, is a University of Washington grad and former clerk for U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter. The youngest of three solicitor generals in the state, he was appointed to the office in 2013. Ferguson calls Purcell a “uniquely gifted individual” who presented his case “brilliantly.”
“Seeing the harm that the travel ban was causing people was more than enough motivation to drop everything and start working on this case,” says Purcell. “The impact we have been able to have on people’s lives has made it all worthwhile.” Purcell finds it strange to be suddenly propelled into the national spotlight. “I don’t know if I’ll ever get used to people asking to take selfies with me,” he says.
Judge Robart, a Shoreline High School and Whitman College grad, practiced law at a Seattle firm before President George W. Bush nominated him to the federal bench in 2003. Since 2012, he has supervised a federal consent decree that requires the Seattle Police Department to address excessive force and biased policing. In July, Robart declined to approve police-accountability legislation passed by the City Council last May, commenting, “The citizens of Seattle are not going to pay blackmail for constitutional policing.”
In his travel-ban decision, Robart wrote that President Trump’s order would harm the state’s residents in business, education, family relations and freedom to travel. While Governor Jay Inslee called Robart’s ruling a “tremendous victory” for Washington state, blowback from Trump was swift: In a now infamous tweet, he called Robart a “so-called judge” and his opinion “ridiculous.” After that tweet, emails to the judge changed dramatically. “They went from ‘I disagree with you’ to ‘You’re not really a judge—you don’t have the right to do this,’” says Robart. Trump, he says, is very adept at using social media. “He has a right to say, ‘I disagree.’ But he does a disservice to his country when he says things like ‘so-called judge.’”
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