Washington state Solicitor General Noah Purcell has argued before packed courtrooms, but those crowds paled in comparison to the millions who heard him argue against President Donald Trump’s travel ban before a federal appeals court.
Luckily, news of the massive audience didn’t reach him beforehand.
“I didn’t really know that it was going to be broadcast live on the networks,” Purcell said, referring to the court’s decision to livestream the audio of the Feb. 7 arguments, which were made available on YouTube and newspaper websites worldwide and carried at least in part by CNN and MSNBC.
“I normally try to follow the news, but I’ve been so buried in this work,” he said.
The work that consumed the earnest 37-year-old Seattle native started just after Trump signed an executive order that temporarily suspended the country’s refugee program and immigration from seven predominantly Muslim countries: Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Syria, Sudan and Yemen. Purcell huddled with Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson and other lawyers to draft what would become the first major challenge to one of Trump’s directives.
Purcell said Trump’s order was motivated by religious discrimination, making it unconstitutional.
His message persuaded a federal judge to temporarily block the travel ban and moved three judges with the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to keep that restraining order in place.
A Justice Department attorney had argued states lacked standing to sue and the courts had little to no role in reviewing the president’s determinations concerning national security. On Thursday, the administration asked the 9th Circuit to hold off on any more decisions related to the lawsuit filed by Washington and Minnesota until it issues a replacement ban.
The size of Purcell’s audiences may be new, but his desire to work on causes that he believes will help the less-advantaged has been his focus for decades.
Attending an inner-city Seattle public school helped shape that outlook, he said.
“I went to school with people from all over the world. Some families were in and out of being homeless,” he said. “I saw from an early age that I was lucky to have two loving parents who were pushing me to get a good education, while there were smart people at Franklin (High School) who did not have the same circumstances.”
“So much depends on where you were born.”
While at Franklin, Purcell began dating Jasmin Weaver, who later became his wife and partner in fights for worthy causes.
Purcell and Weaver teamed up while at the University of Washington and founded Affordable Tuition Now! Their organization helped classmates secure education funds and earned them the prestigious Mary Gates Leadership Award. Weaver now works for the city of Seattle as deputy director of intergovernmental relations.
Weaver’s family history made Trump’s travel ban personal for Purcell.
She’s the daughter of Iranian immigrants who fled their country in the 1970s, Purcell said. The ban didn’t impact Weaver’s mother, a U.S. citizen, but it did affect Weaver’s distant relatives. Some of her cousins couldn’t visit Houston because of the ban, he said.
“It was one of many examples of how irrational the policy is, when it’s keeping grandparents from visiting their grandkids who are U.S. citizens and are the kindest people you’d ever want to meet,” he said.
Purcell dabbled in politics in 2002 when he became campaign manager for another low-income community advocate: Democratic state Rep. Eric Pettigrew. Once Pettigrew secured his seat in the Legislature, Purcell joined his staff.
In 2007, Purcell graduated magna cum laude from Harvard Law School, where he served as editor of the Harvard Law Review. His first job out of school was as law clerk for a judge on the federal appeals court for the D.C. Circuit. His talents soon landed Purcell in the most coveted job any law student could have: clerk for the U.S. Supreme Court. Purcell worked for former Justice David Souter from 2008 to 2009.
His next position was with the Homeland Security Department’s General Counsel’s Office, where he advised the administration on security and immigration issues, including the government’s challenge of Arizona’s immigration law that required police to detain people suspected of being in the country illegally.
Purcell was back in Seattle, working for a law firm, when Ferguson became attorney general in 2012.
The young lawyer’s stint on the Supreme Court, coupled with his reputation as smart but humble, were among the factors that put Purcell high on Ferguson’s list when he began his search for his solicitor general. The job entails coordinating the state’s involvement in appellate cases, filing legal briefs and issuing legal opinions.
After holding several interviews, Purcell was the clear choice, Ferguson said.
“Noah had never argued a case at the Supreme Court, and he was the youngest solicitor general in the country when I hired him _ I was aware of that _ but I was confident that Noah would end up being exactly who he turned out to be: the best solicitor general in the country.”