OAKLAND — Conservatives from Washington to the West Coast have anointed attorney Harmeet Dhillon as their go-to legal warrior in the culture wars of the Covid-19 pandemic. And they don’t even seem to mind that she’s from San Francisco.
During the pandemic, Dhillon has emerged as a conservative thorn in the side of Gov. Gavin Newsom, suing on behalf of pastors, gun shop owners, protesters, cosmetologists and beachgoers. And now on behalf of her fellow Republicans, who last weekend challenged the Democratic governor for switching California to a mail-ballot election in November.
The San Francisco attorney has also become a social media star and a regular on top-rated Fox News shows for her legal expertise and hard-charging political commentary.
Dhillon, 51, argues the pandemic has exposed a government inclined to overreach — and the fragile nature of civil rights.
“The Constitution is not suspended in a pandemic, any more than it was suspended in every war that we’ve had in this country,’’ Dhillon said in an interview. “There is no emergency justifying the suspension of any civil rights in this country.’’
Newsom on March 19 became the first governor to issue a statewide stay-at-home order that shut down nonessential activities. Dhillon's lawsuits have focused on how the state defines "essential."
She has filed more than a dozen lawsuits through her own law firm or her nonprofit, the Virginia-based Center for American Liberty, that challenge Newsom's orders on constitutional grounds. She has questioned his criteria and ability to determine what activities and businesses are necessary.
Some conservative states deemed gun stores and churches essential early on. But California forced them to close until Newsom on Monday allowed houses of worship to reopen.
Dhillon’s nonprofit also filed suit to block Governor Newsom’s appropriation of $75 million toward nonprofits that are providing $500 payments to undocumented immigrants who don't qualify for unemployment insurance.
Her red-state activism in overwhelmingly Democratic California has earned her notice and increasing airtime from Fox News conservative icons like Laura Ingraham, who lauds Dhillon as the one “leading the charge to keep Gavin Newsom’s power grabs in check,’’ and Tucker Carlson, who has said she is “at the forefront of the fight against censorship.”
Dhillon has also caught the attention of President Donald Trump, who kicked off a 2019 White House Social Media Summit — bringing together a collection of conservative bloggers, journalists and media watchers — by anointing Dhillon as “one of the leading First Amendment lawyers in the country.’’ Trump’s praise came on the heels of her advocacy for conservatives battling big tech companies and what they claim is internet censorship as the divide grew between the left and right on issues of civil rights.
She has emerged as a loyal Trump booster — and a big campaign bundler. In Trump's last visit to the Bay Area in September, she corralled many of the 400 deep-pocketed donors who attended a lavish fundraiser at the Portola Valley estate of Sun Microsystems’ founder Scott McNealy, which helped raised $3 million for the president in one night.
The Indian-born daughter of a conservative Sikh family became the first Republican to stand before the Republican National Convention and deliver a Sikh prayer — in Punjabi.
She grew up in North Carolina before heading to Dartmouth College, an Ivy League school where she became editor-in-chief of the Dartmouth Review, the campus conservative newspaper. She later graduated from the University of Virginia School of Law.
Dhillon traveled and worked around the world until she came to San Francisco in 2000 for a Silicon Valley job opportunity during the dot-com boom. She said circumstances changed, "but I fell in love with Northern California and decided to stay."
She opened her own practice, the Dhillon Law Group, in San Francisco in 2006 — when she immersed herself in Republican politics in one of the country’s most liberal bastions.
She took on the challenge of chairing the Republican Party in San Francisco and ran twice unsuccessfully for public office — but also raised her social media and political profile. Seeking to become the first woman and Sikh vice chair in California Republican Party history, she faced down prejudice and some attacks from the far right in her own party’s ranks.
Dhillon took heat for being a former board member for the American Civil Liberties Union in Northern California — a role she pursued in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, she said. She was later attacked as a “Taj Mahal princess” by anonymous opponents at a state convention, where a county chair — later forced to resigned — wrongfully accused her of being a Muslim who endorsed beheading.
Dhillon’s steely drive and activism in the embattled California Republican Party catapulted her to a post as the RNC’s California committeeperson in 2016.
“She is a force; there’s no doubt about it,’’ said Cynthia Bryant, the CRP's longtime executive director. “I've watched her grow so much in the last seven years ... She's very determined and works extremely hard — and she's absolutely passionate about individual freedom and personal liberty."
Dhillon became a party champion in the culture wars in 2016 by representing Trump supporters who were the target of counter-protesters after a San Jose rally by the then-candidate. She went to bat for the University of California, Berkeley College Republicans who took the school to court after canceling a planned talk by conservative firebrand Ann Coulter.
She then represented Google software engineer James Damore, who was fired after circulating a memo that suggested there was a biological basis for the lack of women in the tech industry.
“I'm one of the few lawyers who’s willing to step up and challenge the big tech companies on their privacy violations ... and on their discrimination on the basis of viewpoint,’’ she says. “Most big law firms and big firm lawyers are very interested in having those companies with clients — so they would never sue them.”
But Dhillon has also been dismissed as a grandstander. Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.), in a recent tweet directed at Dhillon, said that “as national co-chair of 'Women for Trump,' you're basically the Purdue Pharma of crazy pills.”
And critics point out that while Dhillon’s legal efforts may give the right a rallying cry, she has so far gotten little traction in the courts.
Mike Madrid, a GOP strategist and outspoken Trump critic who has verbally battled with Dhillon and her team, said Dhillon's growing profile dramatizes the conservative movement that has brought the GOP to its knees in California.
“Most of this is really just about trying to show the banner for a dying, shrinking, angry despondent people’’ who make up the party’s hardcore conservative base, he said. “So rather than using her role as a national committeewoman to focus on building the party — to try and win the hearts and minds of Californians — they’re trying to grab a few headlines on a couple of legal issues.”
On Sunday night, Dhillon’s lawsuit on behalf of the South Bay Pentecostal Church, which challenged Newsom’s Covid-19 shutdowns, reached the U.S. Supreme Court after a 9th Circuit panel rejected the challenge on a 2-1 split vote.
“We’re dealing here with a highly contagious and often fatal disease for which there presently is no known cure,’” Judges Barry Silverman and Jacqueline Nguyen wrote in their majority opinion rebuffing the case.
Dhillon countered that “the idea that you can trust citizens to go behave responsibly in Costco and you cannot trust the same citizens to go behave responsibly in church has no basis in constitutional law or fact.”
Conservatives say her advocacy helped build pressure against Newsom. President Donald Trump last week threatened to "override" states that kept churches shut, while the U.S. Justice Department told Newsom to reopen houses of worship.
On Monday, the governor released new guidelines that will allow a limited number of churchgoers to attend services, with the approval of their local health departments.
Still, Loyola Law School professor Jessica Levinson, and host of “The Legal Eagles Files” — a podcast about constitutional issues — argues that Dhillon's arguments are on weak legal ground in the pandemic era.
“Yes, we have lots of constitutional rights — but none of them are absolute,’’ she said. “We have these incredibly robust state police powers that are there to protect our health, safety and welfare.'' She noted how states have the ability to require seat belts and speed limits for safety reasons.
Dhillon remains undeterred.
"I don't know anybody who wants to get sick from this disease," she said recently on Fox News. “However, I don't know anybody in my Republican circle who wants to live on their knees, either — or at the whim of the governor who picks up the fake news and looks at one [beach] photograph and says, 'Oh, let me punish Orange County.'"