Politics & Government

State solicitor general takes national stage in case against Trump’s immigration order

Washington state Solicitor General Noah Purcell, center, talks to reporters as Attorney General Bob Ferguson, third from right, looks on, Friday, Feb. 3, 2017, following a hearing in federal court in Seattle. A U.S. judge on Friday temporarily blocked President Donald Trump's ban on people from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States after Washington state and Minnesota urged a nationwide hold on the executive order that has launched legal battles across the country.(AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Washington state Solicitor General Noah Purcell, center, talks to reporters as Attorney General Bob Ferguson, third from right, looks on, Friday, Feb. 3, 2017, following a hearing in federal court in Seattle. A U.S. judge on Friday temporarily blocked President Donald Trump's ban on people from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States after Washington state and Minnesota urged a nationwide hold on the executive order that has launched legal battles across the country.(AP Photo/Ted S. Warren) AP

Washington state’s ongoing court battle over President Donald Trump’s controversial immigration order has attracted worldwide attention this month.

On Tuesday, as the state argued its case before a panel of three federal judges — and 137,000 online viewers, the largest audience for an oral argument before the 9th Circuit — the global spotlight was on the lawyer representing the state attorney general’s office: Noah Purcell, a 37-year-old Seattle native.

The case has raised the national profile of Purcell, a graduate of Seattle’s Franklin High School and the University of Washington. As solicitor general, he plays a key role arguing for the state in some legal battles, but it’s not often those cases generate intense national interest.

Purcell has bested Trump’s lawyers once, arguing for Washington in front of U.S. District Judge James Robart last week in Seattle. Robart later ordered a nationwide halt to Trump’s immigration order.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals heard oral arguments to determine whether to lift a nationwide injunction against President Donald Trump’s travel ban against citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries, on Tuesday.

The battle over the travel ban is expected to head to the U.S. Supreme Court. As it winds through the legal system, friends and supporters of Purcell say he’s up to the challenge.

“It’s no surprise to me that he has latched on and found himself on the national stage,” said state Rep. Eric Pettigrew, D-Seattle.

Purcell was Pettigrew’s campaign manager the first time Pettigrew ran for office in 2002. Pettigrew remembered Purcell as a dogged worker on the campaign trail with a strategic mind.

“As a matter of fact, I feel such reassurance and comfort knowing that his eyes and his brain is looking at this stuff,” he said.

Purcell, the youngest of three solicitor generals to serve the state, has a reputation for being a high achiever.

His extensive experience in the legal and political realm began in high school. At Franklin, he competed in mock trial, helping guide Franklin to a state championship in 1997 alongside Jasmin Weaver, who later became his wife.

Purcell and Weaver both attended the University of Washington, where they once again found themselves teaming up on legal issues.

In 2001, they filed a lawsuit against the school to block a fee paid by students to cover costs of the UW’s power bills, arguing the university didn’t have authority to levy the fee. A judge agreed, and ruled against the university.

Later, Purcell was a legislative assistant for Pettigrew and also spent time as an intern for state Sen. Karen Fraser, an Olympia Democrat.

Fraser, who retired from the Senate in January, called Purcell a “brilliant, hardworking, superb researcher.”

“Let’s start out by saying he was a superstar,” she said.

Purcell attended Harvard Law School, where he was an editor of the prestigious Harvard Law Review.

He then clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter before joining the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to provide legal help on immigration issues.

Purcell returned to the state in 2010 to work for the high-powered Seattle law firm Perkins Coie before being hired by state Attorney General Bob Ferguson.

On Tuesday, Judge Richard Clifton, a nominee of George W. Bush, hammered Purcell with questions about whether he could prove religious discrimination.

Purcell, citing public statements by Trump calling for a ban on the entry of Muslims to the U.S., said the states did not have to show every Muslim is harmed, only that the ban was motivated by religious discrimination.

To Purcell’s high school mock trial coach Rick Nagel, Tuesday’s showdown was reminiscent of a legal battle that received far less attention.

In the 1997 mock trial state championships, Purcell had to face questions from former state Supreme Court Justice Richard Sanders, Nagel said.

Purcell was tasked with arguing in support of the Second Amendment right to possess guns for personal protection, and Sanders peppered him, treating him “as if he were an attorney before his court,” Nagel said.

Purcell “responded in a manner that was clearly far beyond his years,” Nagel said.

Decades later, not much has changed, said Nagel, 75.

“He did an outstanding job,” Nagel said of Purcell’s arguments in Tuesday’s court hearing. “What you saw today is the way it’s been.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report

Walker Orenstein: 360-786-1826, @walkerorenstein

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