In summary

Though the state is taking flak from an array of aggrieved Californians — gondoliers, conservative politicians, barbers and manicurists are among the plaintiffs — there is a common denominator for most of these lawsuits: Her name is Harmeet Dhillon.

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Last updated July 22, 2020

Alongside the beach-goers denied, the indignant gun shop owners and the house-bound pastors, Gov. Gavin Newsom now has yet more ticked off challengers to face in court: frustrated parents who want schools reopened despite the pandemic.

And, not to be forgotten, an extremely disappointed bride-to-be. Among the filing to challenge the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, Monica Six, an Orange County resident, is suing California’s Democratic governor for civil rights violations after his executive order “caused her significant financial hardship as well as ruined her idyllic wedding plans to get married in a special anniversary.”

In suing the state, Six is in crowded company. As of mid-July, the State of California, and Newsom in particular, are facing down more than 30 lawsuits over their response to the coronavirus pandemic. (Find CalMatters’ tracker below.)

The courtroom backlash is no surprise. The restrictions that the governor’s March 19 stay-at-home order imposed on California civic and economic life were without precedent in state history. Partial reopenings in many counties led to coronavirus spikes, which in turn prompted some retreat back to restrictions. Many health experts say such drastic measures have been necessary to keep hospitals from being overwhelmed and more Californians from dying. 

But drastic measures they are. Beyond shuttered school houses and cancelled weddings, it has spelled financial calamity for households, business owners, nonprofits and city governments across the state. They have also tested the limits of executive power and the negotiability of many constitutional rights.

Most of the lawsuits against Newsom challenge the broad restrictions imposed by the shelter-in-place orders. Others contest the governor’s offer of state assistance to undocumented immigrants, his targeted closure of beaches in Orange County, the refusal to list gunshops as essential services and the arrest of two protestors.

Elected Republicans and GOP candidates have also contested Newsom’s order that all registered California voters be mailed a ballot for the November election — though two out of three have been dropped.

Though the state has taken flak from an array of aggrieved Californians — gondoliers, conservative politicians and a Butte County musician reduced to playing his saxophone over Zoom are among the plaintiffs — there is a common denominator for many of these lawsuits: Her name is Harmeet Dhillon. 

Of the more than 30 lawsuits against Newsom thus far, the San Francisco attorney and Republican Party bigwig is representing plaintiffs in nearly half of them.

The governor, Dhillon said, “went from ‘let’s flatten the curve for two weeks’ to ‘let’s put everyone under house arrest until we find a cure.’” 

More than 2,500 Californians have died of COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus. Dhillon said she does not make light of that tragedy, but does not believe it justifies shuttering society.

“We do not shut down our highways because people die in car accidents,” she said. “We do not ban commerce because people die of lung disease after buying cigarettes. There’s a whole range of health issues that we manage with an acceptable level of risk.”

Harmeet Dhillon has filed the majority of the lawsuits against California Gov. Gavin Newsom's shutdown order
Harmeet Dhillon during a press conference Monday, Jan. 8, 2018, in San Francisco, Calif., announcing a lawsuit against Google. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)

Public health experts argue that because the coronavirus is so contagious, unlike car accidents and lung cancer, “managing” the risk of an overwhelmed medical system requires tighter restrictions on social control. 

A recent study published with the National Bureau of Economic Research estimated that the state’s shelter-in-place order resulted in 1,661 fewer deaths, which, the authors reasoned, works out to “about 400 job losses per life saved.”

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Dhillon has long played the role of counter-puncher to the progressive ambitions of state Democrats, who now hold every state constitutional office and a big supermajority in the Legislature. When lawmakers passed a bill requiring President Trump to publish his taxes in order to appear on the ballot, it was Dhillon, the Republican Party’s national committeewoman from California, who filed suit on behalf of the California GOP. Last year, she sued Secretary of State Alex Padilla for, she argued, failing to do enough to exclude non-citizens from county voter rolls. 

Along the way, Dhillon has cobbled together a small phalanx of California Republicans to help her wage war against the liberal powers that be. Mark Meuser, who ran for Secretary of State in 2018 on an anti-voter-fraud plank, is on her team. In a handful of the pandemic-era cases, she’s joined by Bill Essayli — a young former prosecutor who unsuccessfully ran for Assembly in 2018.

Even when she isn’t suing the state, Dhillon’s name has a way of popping up whenever a new culture war flashpoint breaks out in California. 

Recall when software engineer James Damore sued Google after being fired for circulating a memo asserting that the underrepresentation of women in tech had a biological basis? Or the student groups who took UC Berkeley to court for cancelling a planned talk by conservative firebrand Ann Coulter, citing security concerns? Or the Trump supporters in San Jose who got roughed up by counter protesters then sued the police? Or the Orange County anti-abortion activist who sued a former Planned Parenthood doctor for bad mouthing him during a TEDx talk?

Dhillon is the plaintiffs’ lawyer in each of these cases. 

Dhillon is in fact a regular on the conservative media circuit. She’s a contributor to Fox News and a frequent guest on that network’s “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” and the “Ingraham Angle,” whose host, Laura Ingraham, Dhillon has cited as a “long time mentor.” At the Conservative Political Action Conference last year, Dhillon earned what might be the most coveted of all endorsements on the American right: “She’s a great lawyer,” President Donald Trump said to Hayden Williams, a conservative activist who was physically assaulted on UC Berkeley’s campus. “Sue the college, the university, and maybe sue the state.” 

She hasn’t. “Not yet,” she said.

“We have some quality control. We don’t just crank these (suits) out like sausages, even if it seems that way. People are getting fed up.”

Harmeet Dhillon

Born in India, Dhillon grew up in North Carolina before going to Dartmouth where, like many members of the American right’s intelligentsia, she edited the Dartmouth Review. 

After going to the University of Virginia law school and working at various firms in New York and London, she opened her own office in San Francisco in 2006. Though her views have skewed right all her life, with a practice in the Bay Area, she has not always seamlessly fit in with the rest of her party. 

For one, there’s the fact that she is a Sikh woman of color in a party dominated by white men. 

During the height of the War on Terror, she sat on the board of the American Civil Liberties Union’s northern California chapter, to the chagrin of some GOP stalwarts. When she ran for state Senate in San Francisco in 2012, she made an effort to steer clear of incendiary social issues like abortion. 

You don’t hear much aversion to controversy from her these days.

In fact, more shutdown lawsuits against Newsom may soon be on the way. Dhillon said her office has been inundated with requests from potential clients. 

“We have some quality control. We don’t just crank these out like sausages, even if it seems that way” she said. “People are getting fed up.”

Many of the cases brought by Dhillon are paid for by a non-profit she founded, the Center for American Liberty. Dhillon said her law office is one of many hired by the Center and that her office in turn works with other clients.

Funding for the center, which pays for her office’s legal services, comes from individual donors whose contributions to the nonprofit are tax exempt. Dhillon said that she is probably the top donor and that “more than 50 percent” of the center’s money comes from her seed funding and three other major donors, whom she would not name.

Filings with the IRS show that the Center, under its prior name Publius Lex, received less than $50,000 in contributions in 2018 and was therefore not required to itemize its contributors. The filing for 2019 has not yet been made available. 

Since the pandemic began, Dhillon said that the nonprofit has received tens of thousands of dollars in donations, but that the legal bill incurred by repeatedly suing the state “significant exceeds” that figure. 

“I haven’t been paid a penny for these cases yet,” she insisted. “I’m not sure I will be.”

“Simply put, these lawsuits are very likely to lose, as most of these challenges around the country have failed.”

UC Berkeley law school dean Erwin Chemerinsky

Many of the lawsuits filed against California’s shelter-in-place order are funded in part by conservative-leaning non-profits. One of the challenges to Gov. Newsom’s allocation of state funds to undocumented immigrants is supported by Judicial Watch, Inc, a longtime legal antagonist of Bill and Hillary Clinton, which recently sued the U.S. Department of Justice for information regarding ties between former Vice President Joe Biden and Ukraine. 

Other nonprofit backers of the cases filed against California include the National Center for Law & Policy, which made headlines in 2015 when it sued the Encinitas public school district for treating its students as “religious ‘guinea pigs’” by subjecting them to yoga classes, and Freedom X, a Los Angeles-based organization that lists combating “intellectual McCarthyism” and “creeping Sharia” as its main campaigns. 

The lawsuits against California’s shelter-in-place orders are only just beginning to wind their way through the legal system. As both the state and counties begin to relax their various shelter-in-place orders, the complaints may be irrelevant before they reach a judicial conclusion. 

But none have had much luck so far. Of those that have requested the court to freeze the state orders while the case plays itself out, none have been granted and — so far — four have been explicitly denied. 

That isn’t surprising, said Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the UC Berkeley law school. 

“Simply put, these lawsuits are very likely to lose, as most of these challenges around the country have failed,” he said in an email. “The government has broad powers to take emergency actions to stop the spread of communicable diseases. This includes the power to order quarantine or shelter in place, to order closure of businesses, and to limit assemblies, including for religious purposes. So long as the government’s action is reasonably related to stopping the spread of COVID-19, the government is likely to prevail.”

Dhillon said she is playing the long game. As judges have slapped down her petitions to put the statewide order on hold — she said their rationales were “fairly lacking in analysis” — she may appeal to a higher court. 

In the meantime, she looks to court rulings in Kansas and Illinois, where judges have pushed back against public health decrees.   

“One day I hope to find a judge in California who has a similarly broad view of the Constitution,” she said.

This lawsuit tracker is reported by Ben Christopher and created by web developer John Osborn D’Agostino.

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Ben Christopher

Ben covers California politics and elections. Prior to that, he was a contributing writer for CalMatters reporting on the state's economy and budget. Based out of the San Francisco Bay Area, he has written...