The ideals of Washington state Solicitor General Noah Purcell, who helped bring a halt to President Trump’s travel ban, were formed by a diverse community in the heart of Seattle.
Noah Purcell is not used to this — sitting in a dark, little box with a camera facing him and MSNBC’s Chris Matthews shouting in his ear.
On Friday morning, three guys in downtown Seattle stopped the Washington state solicitor general just to applaud.
“The Daily Show” called the office. High-school students want to take selfies with him.
Purcell is not the only one deserving attention, he protested during a recent interview, for the state’s successful challenge to the Trump administration’s executive order on immigration. “I did the argument. … There’s a lot of people who have worked on this case.”
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Welcome to the national media spotlight, Mr. Purcell. You’ll be listed in the cast of characters as President Trump opponent No. 2.
Nine days ago, Purcell stood before U.S. District Judge James Robart to argue against Trump’s controversial travel-ban order. He was nervous.
“It was probably the most significant argument of my life until the one in the 9th Circuit, and I had less time to prepare than I’d ever had,” he said.
A few days later, Purcell was pacing his office alone, on a conference call carried live by CNN and others as three 9th Circuit judges raked him and a Department of Justice lawyer over the judicial coals.
The court sided with Purcell and Washington state in refusing to reinstate the ban, which barred travel into the United States from seven majority-Muslim nations.
His performance so far in foiling Trump — “two for two”, as his boss, Attorney General Bob Ferguson quipped Thursday — has people wondering just who is this fresh-faced attorney, and where did he come from?
The 37-year-old’s résumé is impressive: law degree from Harvard, U.S. Supreme Court clerk, associate at a highly regarded Seattle law firm with deep ties to the Democratic Party.
But Purcell’s ideals were formed long before the lofty degrees and impressive positions, in an economically and ethnically diverse community in the heart of liberal Seattle.
Activist, then Harvard
Purcell grew up on Beacon Hill, four houses down from where he and his wife, Jasmin Weaver, live today.
“We chose the neighborhood because it was diverse,” said Paul Purcell, Noah’s father, an affordable-housing developer. “We were intentional about being here in the city.”
Noah’s mother, Barbara Guzzo, an educator, said their children learned cultural and ethnic diversity was “not something to fear, but to be embraced.”
At Franklin High School, Purcell flourished academically and found a partner in Weaver. They began dating as sophomores.
“We’ve been together ever since,” Weaver said.
Both were members of Franklin’s 1997 state champion mock-trial team their senior year.
Their coach, Rick Nagel, remembers Purcell as a bright, humble student who showed poise under rigorous questioning from judges prone to forgetting they were grilling high-school students.
Franklin provided a compelling environment.
“The diversity of that school, racially, economically, physically — I used to call it the Franklin gumbo — the right mixture of ingredients, when tasted, it was sublime,” Nagel said. Students learned “first-rate intellect comes in all colors, both sexes, all sides,” he said.
For teachers, “nothing was off-limits to us,” Nagel said. Everyone from Black Panthers to a neo-Nazi with a “loathsome philosophy” have been invited to speak to students, he said.
“Kids learned they didn’t need safe spaces. … It was an amazing place, socially, racially, in terms of economic diversity and in terms of the dynamism of its intellectual atmosphere.”
After graduating, Weaver and Purcell headed to the University of Washington, where compared to Franklin, “we were struck by the lack of diversity,” she said.
When Purcell wasn’t studying or working at the PCC deli counter, he and Weaver threw themselves into activism and student government.
Purcell served on the Associated Students of the University of Washington board of directors. Weaver, who now helps run Seattle’s intergovernmental relations office, was student-body president.
They also formed Affordable Tuition Now! (ATN!), a student group advocating for more financial aid and accessible tuition prices.
“I thought he was already a law student,” said Enrique Gonzalez, who was part of ATN! and led the organization after Purcell and Weaver graduated.
“He was thinking outside the box. He encouraged folks to work creatively, get to know the system, but work to change it at the same time,” Gonzalez said. Purcell talked often about social justice and how students of color were being left out of higher education, Gonzalez said.
The couple organized protests, and chartered bus trips to Olympia so students could lobby state lawmakers. With Purcell’s help, Weaver sued the university after it charged students an energy fee and won.
After working as assistants to Democrats in the Legislature, Weaver and Purcell spent time in Ireland where she had won a fellowship. After earning master’s degrees there, the pair entered Harvard.
When he went to work for Supreme Court Justice David Souter, he became known as “Noer,” because of the justice’s thick New England accent.
Erin Delaney, who clerked with Purcell and is now a law professor at Northwestern University, said he was known for “down-to-earth” sensibility and a sharp intellect.
He also couldn’t stop talking about Seattle, she said.
“A lot of clerks want to work in government or get fancy money,” Delaney said. “He knew he was going to go back home.”
New on the job
Purcell was 33 when Attorney General Ferguson asked him to leave Seattle law firm Perkins Coie and come serve as the state’s chief appellate litigator.
“I think he was the youngest solicitor general in the country,” Ferguson said. “The decision to hire him I know raised some eyebrows in the office.”
Ferguson “took a chance,” said Purcell. “I had never done an appellate argument before he hired me.”
Jim Oswald, an attorney with Seattle firm Schwerin Campbell Barnard Iglitzin & Lavitt, went up against the inexperienced Purcell in a state Supreme Court case over public-employee pensions. He came away impressed.
“He killed me. He won 9-0 on a case he really should have lost,” Oswald said. “He made a very intelligent, strategic decision about how to focus the case … he was an effective oral advocate.”
Lawyers who have worked with Purcell and opposed him said his legal writing is clear and succinct and his oral arguments are substantive but not flashy.
Ferguson said Purcell is the most talented lawyer he knows, and said “there’s a good chance” he would argue in the Supreme Court if this case moves there.
After Trump’s election, Purcell said he and Ferguson spoke in general terms about what the state might do should the new president act on campaign promises and restrict immigration.
After the executive order was signed Jan. 27, Purcell said, “we talked a little about possible arguments and possible challenges and he said, ‘let’s go forward with this.’ ” They called attorneys in for an all-weekend session to craft a complaint.
About a dozen lawyers in the office have subsisted on coffee and adrenaline in recent weeks, Purcell said, as the group formed its case before two hearings on Trump’s executive order.
Purcell told the court the ban was illegal for a number of reasons, including that discrimination against Muslims was a motivating factor in its conception and that the order favored one religion over another.
For Purcell, the case is not a mere abstraction. His mother-in-law, a U.S. citizen, emigrated from Iran. “I don’t have a … monolithic view of any of these countries as a scary place,” he said.
The community around him, the one that shaped him, has been supportive and appreciative throughout this “blur” of an experience, Purcell said.
Neighbors have offered to cook meals for his family, he said. His parents have helped take care of his kids, ages 2 and 4.
Those high-school students wanting selfies? They were Rainier Beach High School students attending a student ethics bowl at the University of Washington where Purcell was volunteering as a judge.
They had family members who were refugees.
On Purcell’s desk Friday sat a letter he received from a teacher who taught in his elementary school.
“Just wanted to thank you,” she wrote. “I am writing to you from the perspective of someone whose family was greatly affected by another Executive Order — EO 9066. 75 years ago, my family was uprooted and sent to the horsestalls in Puyallup Fairgrounds, then to Minidoka, Idaho where I was born in this internment camp. You can see why I am greatly concerned with what is happening in our country now and why I felt such pride when I saw you in the news.”