USC Dornsife alumna wins landmark ruling in U.S. Supreme Court DACA case
A once-in-a-century pandemic grips the nation. Civil uprisings against police brutality and racial inequality have spurred protests in every major city. A presidential election between two diametrically opposed candidates looms just over the horizon.
This summer’s most important and enduring legacy, however, might be a series of prominent Supreme Court cases that have shaped the fates of millions. Lindsay Harrison, who graduated in 2000 with a degree in political science and gender studies from USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, was a lead lawyer for several of these cases.
On June 15, a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court preserved protections for LGBTQ employees. On June 18, the court restored the rights of Deferred Action Childhood Arrival (DACA) recipients. More recently, a legal scuffle between Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and prominent universities, including USC, made national news as the United State government sought to send international students home if schools failed to offer in-person classes during the pandemic.
In the DACA case, Harrison co-led the team that litigated and prevailed in the Supreme Court against the Trump administration’s attempt to disband protections for DACA recipients. She also represented USC and 59 other universities that supported legal action against the ICE order, which was eventually overturned as pressure from institutions mounted.
Victory in these cases has been personally rewarding for Harrison. Her father fled the Soviet Union in the ’70s, during the early part of the country’s “Era of Stagnation,” a period marked by economic hardship that eventually led to the end of Soviet power. The family settled in Texas and her grandfather, a former lawyer, worked at a kosher deli to support his wife and son.
“I’ve always been raised with a recognition of how immigration enriches the American experience, and how it’s really important to the character of our country,” she explains. “To see some devaluing of that over the last few years has been disheartening. I’ve really wanted to fight back against that.”
Harrison’s never been one to shy away from an important court battle. In 2009, at just 30 years old, she argued a case to the Supreme Court. It was her very first argument in any court.
After graduation from USC Dornsife, she’d gone on to Harvard Law School and then joined Jenner & Block, a Washington, D.C.-based appellate firm well-known for pro-bono work. She represented Jean Marc Nken, who awaited deportation back to Cameroon after the Board of Immigration Appeals denied his request for asylum. The Supreme Court ultimately ruled in his favor, and the ruling changed the deportation stay standard in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th and 11th Circuits.
Harrison’s involvement in the DACA case began in 2017, when Princeton University and Microsoft hired Harrison to sue the government and argue that the rescission of DACA was unlawful. Maria Perales Sánchez, a Princeton student who immigrated from Central Mexico with her mother as a child, became the public face of the suit.
Harrison filed a lawsuit in federal court, which she won. The government appealed and the case ended up in the Supreme Court, where it was argued in November 2019. Then, for eight tense months, she and her clients awaited their decision. By this point, Perales Sánchez was a Princeton graduate working at a nonprofit in Baltimore, still dreaming of citizenship.
The Supreme Court releases most of its decisions each year in May and June, but the coronavirus outbreak had shuttered courts. “Now, on the court website, they post opinions that are ready that day, and you don’t know in advance what day. So, everyone just sits at their computer at 10 a.m., hitting refresh, refresh, refresh,” laughs Harrison.
Parenting during the pandemic made this vigilance a bit of a challenge. As 10 a.m. approached on the morning the court released its DACA decision, Harrison was finishing up breakfast for her two children. “I had to run upstairs to the computer, but I wasn’t quite done so I pulled up Twitter on my phone because I figured it would hit Twitter before the news,” she recounts. “Sure enough, it was a win, and I just started jumping up and down.”
The very first call she received was from Perales Sánchez. “We talked about the decision and what it meant for her, and her family, and just cried on the phone together,” she says.
Remote courtrooms did present a unique upside for Harrison. She’d helped file a brief representing USC and a cohort of other universities challenging ICE’s demand to send international students home if classes were held online.
With in-person courts out of the question, a Zoom call was set up for the hearing. “There were maybe 900 participants on the call. You’re not going to fit that many people in a district court room in Boston,” she explains. “To be able to have that many people in person on the Zoom, plus many more listening in on the phone, made it more democratic and transparent.”
Skills from Troy
She may be a Harvard law graduate, but Harrison credits her time at Dornsife for building some of her essential lawyer skills, especially her gender studies courses.
“It teaches you critical analysis, which is the main skill you have to have as a lawyer,” she explains. “You have a set of facts and you break them down, and you make an argument out of that. In gender studies, it’s done through the lens of gender, but the actual skills absolutely transfer to other subjects.”
Gender studies may be an unusual major for someone interested in a career in law, but Harrison advises those interested in following in her footsteps to maintain their individuality.
“Law schools don’t want students who all took political science classes and took the same path. They want you to be an individual and to be unique. Have your own unique passions; that will make you a better lawyer.”
For those contemplating law school who find Harrison’s history of high-stakes court appearances unnerving, Harrison offers comfort and encouragement, reminding us that work as a lawyer frequently draws on one of the most fundamental skills of the humanities: writing.
“In this Harvard case against ICE, the lawyers never said a word in court,” says Harrison. “It all happened because the submitted briefs were so persuasive on the page that the government backed down. The lawyers didn’t have to say a word.