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Meet Noah Purcell: WA’s de facto defender of the Constitution

Three weeks ago, it was highly unlikely most of us had ever heard of Noah Purcell or even knew Attorney General Bob Ferguson had a solicitor general. That all changed when the state sued the Trump administration over the controversial travel ban.

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But who is the 37-year-old Seattle native who has become a national figure in the fight against the executive order — and de facto defender of the Constitution?

Who is Noah Purcell?

Noah Purcell’s seeds for taking on President Trump were sown long ago — from diversity-minded parents who raised him to embrace different cultures in Seattle’s Beacon Hill neighborhood to Franklin High School and then the University of Washington.

“I guess I’ve realized from a young age, with their help and with the help of friends and family, that I had a lot of advantages and a lot of people didn’t, through no fault of their own,” he said. “And I’ve tried to use some of those advantages to help other people.”

Purcell was a standout student all along the way, with the woman who would ultimately become his wife by his side from sophomore year on. He did a mock trial in high school. In college, he served on the UW student board of directors. His then-girlfriend was elected student body president.

Together they organized protests and lobbied state lawmakers to keep tuition in check. And he helped her successfully sue the university after it charged students a new fee many felt was unfair.

“That experience taught me that sometimes illegal things happen and they can only get blocked if someone has the guts to stand up and challenge them,” Purcell said.

After graduating from the UW, Purcell worked in the state legislature for a year before heading to Harvard Law School. He continued to stand out, eventually landing a clerkship in the U.S. Supreme Court with Justice David Souter.

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But the couple’s home state would ultimately pull them back. He worked for a prestigious law firm before Ferguson convinced him to become the state’s Solicitor General eight years ago.

So why would he walk away from what could be a seven-figure salary with some highfalutin firm?

“Obviously this case has been getting a lot of attention but every day I get to work with really smart people on cases that impact the public in a wide variety of ways,” Purcell said.

But Purcell admits he could have never imagined he’d become a celebrity of sorts, partnering with his boss to sue the administration over the executive order that at least temporarily banned tens of thousands of people from traveling legally into the country. Purcell says it was a decision made by him and Ferguson less than 24 hours after the executive order came down on that fateful Friday afternoon, throwing the nation’s airports and scores of lives into chaos.

“We walked through the problems with the order and the pros and cons of bringing a lawsuit right away, and the risks and some strategies and basically decided Saturday, I think around noon, that we were gonna do this and go ahead and try to move very quickly because the impacts were immediate,” Purcell said. “We were hearing from state universities that they were having students and faculty that were stranded. There were very real impacts right away on people, including state residents who were trapped overseas.”

Purcell and Ferguson mobilized their staffs, and everyone in the office worked literally around the clock to file the suit and request a temporary restraining order blocking the travel ban just two days later. He argued and ultimately won the temporary restraining order days later, and the following week convinced three judges on the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals to uphold it despite a furious challenge from the White House and Department of Justice.

He argued and ultimately won the temporary restraining order days later. The following week, he convinced three judges on the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals to uphold it despite a furious challenge from the White House and Department of Justice.

It was only when he heard the oral arguments would be broadcast worldwide on CNN and other networks and listened to by millions that the sheer magnitude of everything really hit.

“I didn’t know what to make of it,” Purcell said. “I didn’t think there was any way in the world that CNN or other news channels would just show a blank screen for an hour, or just people talking for an hour. But then when I heard afterward that that actually happened, that’s when it really hit home that, wow, a lot of people are really listening to this. But I think it’s a wonderful thing. I think people got to see a window into how our judicial system works. I think people got to see what the judges were really interested in and asking about and got to hear the arguments for themselves; sort of judge for themselves the arguments.”

Lawsuit fallout

While Trump would blast the judges who sided with Washington state, thousands sent email, tweets, and letters to the AG’s office from all over the world. Purcell beamed as he showed me a huge handmade card from a number of school kids thanking him for standing up for what’s right.

“It is pretty overwhelming. I have never really experienced anything like it,” he said. “It’s been wonderful to have so many people reaching out to say they support the work that we’re doing, to say thank you or to tell us how it impacted them or their family. That’s been one of the things keeping us going, despite the exhaustion, is to know how much people appreciate it and to know how much of a difference it has already made. It’s not often as a lawyer that you get to see so directly an impact on so many people.”

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But even though he and Attorney General Ferguson have received all of the attention, including multiple appearances on CNN, MSNBC, and other media across the country, he’s quick to credit everyone in the office for the effort.

“It’s great to work for an attorney general who had the moral courage to bring a case like this and it’s also been really nice to have the support of the governor’s office and the governor,” he said. “While I wish none of this had happened in the first place, it has been a powerful, positive experience about how we can service a check on the executive branch when it does illegal things.”

And as we visited in his office, Purcell was hardly resting on his laurels. He’s already looking ahead to the next executive order — and prepared to continue standing up to the White House, or anyone else who violates the law.

“If we have constitutional or other legal concerns with the order, we would not hesitate to take action again but we’ll wait and see,” he said. “And hopefully, they’ve learned some things from this experience and will be more careful in a new order, but we will be ready to review it very carefully and to take action if we need to.”

He hopes at some point to be able to catch his breath and reflect on all that has happened because it’s the furthest thing from anything he could have imagined all those years ago when he first started fighting for what’s right back at the UW.

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