Churches, gunshops and irate brides: All the shutdown lawsuits against Newsom, explained

CalMatters is tracking lawsuits against California's shelter-in-place order and other pandemic responses. Photography by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters; elements via iStock

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Alongside the beach-goers denied, the indignant gun shop owners and the house-bound pastors, Gov. Gavin Newsom now has yet another ticked off challenger to face in court: an extremely disappointed bride-to-be.

In the latest 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. The State of California, and Newsom in particular, are facing down more than a dozen 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 have imposed on California civic and economic life are without precedent in state history. Many public health experts, both inside and outside the administration, say such drastic measures are necessary to tamp down the coronavirus pandemic and keep hospitals from becoming overwhelmed.

But drastic measures they are. Beyond 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.

Though the state is taking 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 most of these lawsuits: Her name is Harmeet Dhillon.

Of the more than a dozen shutdown lawsuits against Newsom thus far, the San Francisco attorney and Republican Party bigwig is representing plaintiffs in nine 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.”

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 the 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 Escondido 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. A few state judges have slapped down her petitions to put the statewide order on hold — she said their rationales were “fairly lacking in analysis.” But where she loses, 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.


Lawsuit Tracker

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

Are guns essential?
Brandy v Newsom
When both Gov. Newsom and Los Angeles County health officials ordered everyone to stay home on March 19, they carved out exceptions for “essential businesses.” Gun shops didn’t make the cut, prompting this suit from a gun owner, gun shop, the National Rifle Association assorted gun-rights groups. They argue that the 2nd Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which protects the right to keep and bear arms, also applies to “the channels of access by which people lawfully obtain and transfer firearms.” They also argue that the twin orders were unenforceably vague.
Link to complaint

Filed: Mar 27, 2020
Plaintiff’s Attorney(s): George M. Lee
Supporting Advocates: Second Amendment Foundation; California Gun Rights Foundation; National Rifle Association of America; and Firearms Policy Coalition

Are churches essential? (Round 2)
Gish v Newsom
A day after Easter, three church pastors and a congregant from the Inland Empire sued the state, along with Riverside and San Bernardino counties, for refusing to designate houses of worship as essential services. The social distancing mandates are particularly challenging for James Moffatt of Church Unlimited in Indio who, the lawsuit complaint said, “believes that scripture commands him as a pastor to lay hands on people and pray for them, this includes the sick.” The case argues that the various orders violate the various church members’ constitutionally protected freedoms of speech, religion, assembly and due process, and that they favor non-religious practices.
Link to complaint

Filed: Apr 13, 2020
Plaintiff’s Attorney(s): Harmeet Dhillon

Are churches essential? (Round 3)
Cross Culture Christian Center v Newsom

After a Lodi church was ordered shuttered by county health officials, citing both county and state orders, the Cross Culture Christian Center sued. “Plaintiffs have sincerely held religious beliefs, rooted in the Bible, that followers of Jesus Christ are not to forsake the assembling of themselves together, and that they are to do so even more in times of peril and crisis,” reads the legal complaint. It argues that both the state and San Joaquin County orders violate constitutionally protected freedoms of speech, religious practice, assembly, due process, and that they represent unconstitutional “hostility toward religion.”
Link to complaint

Filed: Apr 22, 2020
Plaintiff’s Attorney(s): Dean R. Broyles, Robert H. Tyler
Supporting Advocates: National Center for Law & Policy; Advocates for Faith & Freedom

Are churches essential? (Round 1)
Abiding Place Ministries v Newsom

The first challenge from a religious organization against the state’s shelter-in-place order, the San Diego’s Abiding Place Ministries evangelical church argued that the state’s exemptions for non-religious businesses such as “cannabis retailers, grocery stores, pharmacies, supermarkets, big box stores,” betray a preference for non-religious activity. The suit accuses the state and county orders of infringing on the constitutional right to freely exercise religion, and of an infringement on due process.
Link to complaint

Filed: Apr 22, 2020
Plaintiff’s Attorney(s): William Joseph Becker, Jr., Harmeet Dhillon
Supporting Advocates: Freedom X

“Unjustly confined”
Armstrong v Newsom

Samuel Armstrong, a Los Angeles County resident, is suing the state on behalf of himself and “all others similarly situated” — which is just about everyone. He argues that the statewide shelter-in-place order violates the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution that prohibits detention “without due process of law.”
Link to complaint

Filed: April 23, 2020
Plaintiff’s Attorney(s): Rami Kayyali

Hey hey, ho ho, shelter-in-place has got to go
Givins v Newsom

Two Sacramentans applied for permits to protest at the state Capitol and were denied. Ron Givens, a Sacramento Gun Club employee, wanted to protest state delays in processing background checks for firearm sales. Christine Bish, the local GOP candidate for Congress, wanted to advocate for an end to the statewide shelter-in-place order. Both sued, arguing that state officials violated their rights to free speech, assembly, petition and due process. On May 8, a federal judge denied their request to have the order suspended immediately. “The sacrifices all California residents are being asked to make to protect the state’s most vulnerable flow from a constitutional executive order,” Judge John Mendez wrote. “And our willingness to rise to the challenge posed by that order is a true measure of our humanity.”
Link to complaint

Filed: Apr 27, 2020
Plaintiff’s Attorney(s): Gill Sperlein, Harmeet Dhillon

Funds for undocumented Californians? (Round 2)
Crest v Newsom

On April 15, Gov. Newsom announced that the state would be providing $75 million in state revenue to undocumented immigrants in California who do not otherwise qualify for federal assistance during the pandemic. According to the governor’s orders, the money is to be channeled through nonprofits. Robin Crest and Howard Meyers, who are described in a court filing merely as “resident taxpayers” sued. They argue that federal laws prohibits the state from providing financial assistance to undocumented immigrants without Legislative approval.
Link to complaint

Filed: Apr 29, 2020
Plaintiff’s Attorney(s): Robert Patrick Sticht
Supporting Advocates: Judicial Watch, Inc.

Leave our beach alone (Dana Point edition)
Muller v Newsom

After photos of crowded Orange County beaches went viral over the weekend of April 25, Gov. Newsom singled out the county is order its entire shoreline be closed. Dana Point Councilman Joe Muller, San Clemente Councillor Laura Ferguson and Mission Viejo Councilman Greg Raths sued, calling Newsom’s order “a clear abuse of discretion” and contending that access to the beach is protected by the California Constitution.
Link to complaint

Filed: May 1, 2020
Plaintiff’s Attorney(s): Harmeet Dhillon, Bilal Essayli
Supporting Advocates: The Center for American Liberty

Leave our beach alone (Newport edition)
Muldoon v Newsom

After photos of crowded Orange County beaches went viral over the weekend of April 25, Gov. Newsom singled out the county is order its entire shoreline be closed. Newport Beach Councilman Kevin Muldoon sued, arguing that the governor’s special treatment was violated OC residents’ right to equal protection under the law, along with their right to travel and assemble. Four days after filing the order, a federal judge denied Muldoon’s request to have the order suspended immediately, writing that the action is now “moot,” given that the beaches have been opened.
Link to complaint

Filed: May 4, 2020
Plaintiff’s Attorney(s): Harmeet Dhillon, Bilal Essayli

Businesses bite back
Gondola Adventures Inc v Newsom

Gondola Adventures is no longer rowing couples along the canal ways of the Newport Beach Harbor. Wildfire Lighting isn’t working its special effects magic for Hollywood productions. King’s Mobile Pet Spa hasn’t blowdried a poodle since at least mid-March. Those three companies and four others are suing Gov. Newsom, along with 32 other stat and Los Angeles and Orange county officials, for forcing them to shut down. In doing so, they argue, the state has invaded their property rights, unconstitutionally restricted their right to travel, and violated other civil rights guaranteed in both the state and U.S. constitutions.
Link to complaint

Filed: May 6, 2020
Plaintiff’s Attorney(s): Mark Geragos, Harmeet Dhillon

Not all damages are financial
Six v Newsom

Citing a legal memo from Attorney General William Barr warning of “overbearing infringement of constitutional and statutory protections” at the hands of power hungry state and local public health officers, six California residents sued the state for non-economic harms. They are a couple unable to visit their adult son with special needs, a breast cancer survivor unable to get reconstructive surgery, a young woman forced to delay her wedding, a high school student prevented from attending graduation, and a musician “restricted now to playing solos on his saxophone for his Wednesday night men’s Bible study via Zoom video conferencing.” They claim the order violates their right to due process and equal protection under the law.
Link to complaint

Filed: May 8, 2020
Plaintiff’s Attorney(s): Harmeet Dhillon
Supporting Advocates: The Center for American Liberty

Are churches essential? What about a synagogue?
South Bay United Pentecostal Church v Newsom

With Gov. Newsom declaring a transition from “Phase 1” to “Phase 2” of the state’s pandemic response, allowing for more businesses to open and operate, two religious institutions in San Diego County are feeling excluded. The South Bay United Pentecostal Church in Chula Visa the Chabad of Carmel Valley synagogue in San Diego are suing, arguing that the revised order restricts their congregation’s rights to free exercise of religion, to assembly, speech and due process, and that it constitutes “excessive government entanglement with religion.”
Link to complaint

Filed: May 8, 2020
Plaintiff’s Attorney(s): Charles LiMandri, Thomas Brejcha, Harmeet Dhillon
Supporting Advocates: Thomas More Society; The Center for American Liberty


State Won

Funds for undocumented Californians?
Benitez v Newsom

On April 15, Gov. Newsom announced that the state would provide $75 million in state revenue to undocumented immigrants in California who do not otherwise qualify for federal assistance during the pandemic. According to the governor’s orders, the money is to be channeled through nonprofits. Ricardo Benitez and Jessica Martinez, two Republican candidates for state Assembly, petitioned the California Supreme Court to freeze the spending. They argue that state and federal laws prohibit the state from funding nonprofits or undocumented immigrants without the Legislature’s approval. On May 6, the Supreme Court denied the petition.
Link to complaint

Filed: Apr 22, 2020
Plaintiff’s Attorney(s): Harmeet Dhillon, Bilal Essayli
Supporting Advocates: The Center for American Liberty


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