SACRAMENTO, Calif. – Long before Harmeet Dhillon became the leader of the legal fight against California's stay-at-home order, she was a new elementary school student in North Carolina uncomfortable because she didn't know the Christian prayer her classmates recited every morning.
She told her mother, who had studied the Constitution for her citizenship test after the Sikh family emigrated to the United States from India. Her mother spoke to the principal about the legality of having public school students reciting a prayer.
The school changed its policy, Dhillon said. That moment was her initial lesson in the First Amendment that four decades later would be one of the underpinnings for more than a dozen lawsuits she helped to file over the coronavirus-induced order in California that closed businesses, churches and beaches, restricted people's movements and produced record high unemployment.
During the Trump presidency, Dhillon, 51, has emerged as one of California’s most prominent Republican voices, appearing regularly on Fox News and suing the state’s Democratic leaders to block what she believes to be government overreach. She is one of California’s two elected members of the Republican National Committee, and she’s a co-chair of “Women for Trump” that is part of the president’s reelection campaign.
While Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom has started relaxing restrictions on his stay-at-home mandate that took effect March 19, Dhillon has no plans to stop filing lawsuits.
“Until we have some guardrails around this governor, or future governors, and their behavior and their ability to violate our civil rights, we are not going to stop,” she said in a recent interview. “It's unacceptable.”
Dhillon has brought cases on behalf of small business owners, beachgoers, hairstylists and churches. Most say their free speech and other rights were unnecessarily trampled by Newsom's order. She has also filed lawsuits against the Democratic governors of New Jersey and Virginia over their restrictions on religious services.
Dhillon so far has yet to get a victory in court, however. Last week the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Newsom's ban on in-person religious gatherings. In another case, a judge denied Dhillon and other lawyers’ requests to block Newsom from closing Orange County beaches.
But in both cases, Newsom ultimately relented — beaches reopened after restrictions were imposed by local governments, and religious services now are allowed if houses of worship follow state guidelines.
Dhillon's most recent virus-related lawsuit was filed on behalf of the California Republican Party and the Republican National Committee to block Newsom's executive order that all registered voters in the state be mailed a ballot for the November election as a safeguard against the virus. She said the governor overstepped his bounds, and it's up to the Legislature to determine how elections are conducted.
California Secretary of State Alex Padilla, a Democrat, called the lawsuit “another part of Trump's political smear campaign against vote-by-mail." The president says, without evidence, that mail-in voting will lead to fraud.
Newsom’s office and political advisors did not directly address Dhillon's lawsuits. But spokesman Nathan Click said Newsom “moved swiftly to protect human life” and that California has flattened the virus curve and helped vulnerable residents stay safe.
“Protecting health and well-being of all Californians will continue to be what drives his actions — not politics,” Click said in a statement.
Dhillon has practiced law in California for two decades. But she only recently emerged as a leader of the political right's legal fights.
After moving to California in 2000, she was involved at the grassroots level in San Francisco Republican politics before twice unsuccessfully running for the state Legislature in one of the country's most liberal cities. She chaired the city's Republican Party before winning election as vice chair of the state GOP in 2013.
She has won national attention from conservative media for her work.
Laura Ingraham, the Fox News host and a fellow Dartmouth College alumnus who graduated a few years before Dhillon, has praised her “great work” on the lawsuits. Dhillon counts Dinesh DiSouza, another Dartmouth graduate and conservative provocateur, as a mentor.
Dhillon said her lawsuits are not partisan. She noted that she has teamed with political opposites in some of her lawsuits, notably Mark Geragos, the Los Angeles-based celebrity lawyer whose clients included Michael Jackson and Colin Kaepernick.
“The governor's policies and the policies of counties are falling more heavily on Democrats than Republicans because there are more Democrats than Republicans in the state,” Dhillon said.
Most of the lawsuits were filed through the Center for American Liberty, a nonprofit Dhillon helped launch in 2018 to take on civil-liberties focused legal work, but some are through her private law firm based in the San Francisco Bay Area, the Dhillon Law Group. The nonprofit does not have to disclose its donors.
Dhillon represented the California Republican Party in a successful challenge last year to a law aimed at requiring Trump to release his tax returns to be on the California ballot.
Mike Madrid, a California Republican who is leading a national anti-Trump effort, said the state's Republican Party is in such bad electoral shape that lawsuits are now its main strategy.
“It may be fun and you may get a soundbite, but is it making a difference? No. In fact it’s reinforcing the bad image of the Republican Party," he said of Dhillon's recent lawsuits.
Her conservative views were shaped by her parents, who emigrated from the Punjab region of India when Dhillon was a baby. When she was 16, she went to Dartmouth. Her viewpoints hardened as she joined the Dartmouth Review, the renowned conservative college newspaper at the famously liberal school.
“I learned a lot about writing. I learned a lot about arguing. I learned a lot about standing up for what you believe regardless of what the majority thinks,” she said.
A defining moment came in 1988, when three of Dhillon’s classmates on the paper were suspended following an altercation with a professor. The Review sued to get the students reinstated and eventually won.
It marked a turning point for Dhillon, who studied classics and planned to become a doctor like her father. Instead, she became a lawyer, clerking in the U.S. Department of Justice's Civil Division and later on the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Baltimore.
Dhillon joined the board of the American Civil Liberties Union after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to further her work on discrimination against Sikhs and South Asians. Her affiliation with an organization many Republicans see as overtly pro-Democrat was an issue when she ran as party vice chair in 2013, but she won anyway.
Jim Brulte, then the chairman of the state party, said he encouraged Dhillon to become a more public face for the party and, in 2016, to run for the Republican National Committee. He now considers her one of the most prominent Republican voices in California, behind only U.S. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and U.S. Rep. Devin Nunes.
“She's a great spokesperson. She's highly intelligent, very articulate,” he said.
Asked whether she thinks her political affiliation will color how people perceive her legal efforts, Dhillon said: “I don’t really care how people perceive it, honestly. There’s nobody else doing it."