Washington’s Top Lawyer Uses Strategic Streak to Fight Trump

February 12, 2017, 8:42 PM UTC

The legal challenge that would launch Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson into the vanguard of resistance against President Donald Trump’s travel ban was already in the works as Ferguson flew home from Florida the morning after Trump issued his executive order.

In fact, it had been planned for some time.

“We were having internal conversations about a potential action by the president along those lines,” Ferguson recalled in an interview. “It wasn’t like we were starting from ground zero.”

The legwork paid off. Within three days, the state’s lawsuit over the ban — a more sweeping challenge than other cases filed over Trump’s order — had been filed. The result? First a decision from a federal judge in Seattle that blocked nationwide enforcement of the ban, then a resounding win at the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

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The strategic thinking that led to the victories is one of Ferguson’s hallmarks, say those who have observed his career. Ferguson attributes it to spending his formative years playing competitive chess. He was a two-time state champion by his early 20s.

“Chess teaches you to anticipate your opponent’s threats and moves,” he said. “If your opponent makes a move that surprises you, that’s a problem.”

Ferguson, a boyish 51-year-old Democrat, is serving his second term as Washington’s top lawyer after winning two-thirds of the vote against a Libertarian challenger last fall. The Republicans didn’t field a candidate.

His office has launched significant lawsuits during his tenure, including several that made national headlines.

He has filed consumer protection lawsuits against major computer technical support and student loan companies over what he described as predatory practices; sued President Barack Obama’s administration over cleanup of the Hanford nuclear reservation, where the government made plutonium for weapons; and took a florist to court for refusing to serve clients staging a gay wedding.

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Last fall, Ferguson made Washington the first state to sue the agrochemical giant Monsanto over pervasive pollution from PCBs. An avid backpacker and mountain climber, he spoke of his anger that one of Washington’s major rivers, the Skagit, on which his great-grandparents homesteaded in the 19th century, is now contaminated.

None of those cases generated the interest of the one challenging Trump’s order halting refugees and citizens of seven Muslim-majority nations from entering the U.S. Ferguson called it unconstitutional and un-American.

Ferguson had been attending a meeting of Democratic attorneys general in Florida when the ban was announced late Friday, Jan. 27. When he landed at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport on Saturday, his voicemail was full of messages alerting him to Gov. Jay Inslee’s plans for a news conference at the airport to condemn the ban.

Ferguson decided to skip it and headed north to Seattle, where his team, led by state Solicitor General Noah Purcell and the head of the office’s civil rights unit, Colleen Melody, was already putting together the state’s lawsuit.

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They worked through the weekend. Where other lawsuits had sought the release of specific travelers who had been detained on arrival in the U.S., Washington sued on its own sake — citing widespread harm to its universities, businesses, tax collections and residents.

“He’s got this smartest-kid-in-your-high-school-class thing, but he’s a bulldog when he wants something,” Chris Vance, former head of the state Republican Party, said about Ferguson. “He’s extremely politically ambitious, and he’s unwilling to take no for an answer.”

Ferguson was 38 during his first campaign, virtually unknown and taking on the chairwoman of the King County Council, a 20-year incumbent from his own party. That didn’t sit well with the local Democratic honchos, but Ferguson says he knocked on 22,000 doors and won by 528 votes after 30,000 ballots were cast.

“I remember talking to him saying, ‘Hey, Bob, come down to the Seattle Chamber of Commerce for their interview panel because you might have a shot at getting their endorsement,'” said King County Councilman Rod Dembowski, who helped run Ferguson’s campaign. “He wouldn’t do it because it would have taken three hours away from doorbelling.”

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Two years later, the council reduced its size from 13 members to nine — and the powers repaid Ferguson by eliminating his district, forcing him to run against another Democratic incumbent. He won again.

Ferguson has gone his own way as attorney general, too, perhaps no more so than in his 2013 hiring of Purcell, who’s been arguing the state’s case against the travel ban in court. The solicitor general position normally goes to a seasoned attorney. Purcell, a former clerk for Justice David Souter, was 33.

“That Noah was so young and had never argued in front of the U.S. Supreme Court — or even the state Supreme Court — did not go unnoticed by many folks in my office,” Ferguson said.

Once his staff saw Purcell in action, though, any concerns evaporated.

Questioned about whether he’s comfortable in the national spotlight, Ferguson demurred. The attention comes with the territory, he said. And though he’s frequently mentioned as a possible governor, that’s not on his mind right now.

“When I ran for attorney general, I used to say I felt that it was the most consequential position in state government, and people often looked at me with a strange expression,” Ferguson said. “I can tell you, when I say that now, nobody gives me a funny look.”