Silicon Valley Gets Behind Initiative to Challenge Trump’s Agenda in Court

By Lizette Chapman

The day after U.S. President Donald Trump ordered a ban on travelers from seven majority Muslim countries, Mamoon Hamid was rallying a response from Silicon Valley. The Pakistan-born venture capitalist held a private dinner that night in San Francisco, where he pitched other investors, entrepreneurs and technology executives on a coalition that could challenge the Trump administration’s most controversial policies in court.

The goal was to solicit funding for the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection. The group offers a legal swat team of sorts “to protect people at a moment of great instability and peril,” said Hamid, the chairman. He had been planning the white-linen event with attendees from Facebook Inc., Google and other tech companies for months, but the immigration ban offered newfound urgency.

Neal Katyal, the institute’s co-founder and star litigator, also spoke at the closed-door fundraiser at the Four Seasons. Katyal is perhaps best known for winning a 2006 Supreme Court case defending Osama bin Laden’s driver, which effectively outlawed secret military trials at Guantanamo Bay. He’s now the lead attorney on the travel ban lawsuit in Hawaii, where a federal judge temporarily blocked Trump’s executive order last week. At the banquet, Katyal laid out his vision, which centers on selecting cases he thinks are most likely to be heard by the Supreme Court.

By the time guests were noshing on pumpkin crème brûlée, they were hooked. The dinner raised $1 million, and contributions keep coming from the left-leaning worlds of tech and Hollywood. Supporters include Box Inc.’s Aaron Levie and Andreessen Horowitz’s John O’Farrell, as well as Jared Leto, Jessica Alba and Katy Perry. The institute filed its first case this month against militant groups at the deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.

The legal upstart is neither the first, nor the best-funded effort to shape policy via the courts. The nearly century-old American Civil Liberties Union and its foundations raised about $146 million last year, and they’re seeing record donations this year, with support from Alphabet Inc.’s Google, Lyft Inc. and other companies. Citizens for Responsible Ethics in Washington focuses on similar issues. But the institute is unique for its strategy led by Katyal and early support from prominent figures in the tech and entertainment industries, who have contributed more than $3 million.

Many backers said they voted for Hillary Clinton and expressed animosity toward Trump’s brand of politics. They hope the institute can serve as a tool to undermine the Republican’s agenda. Hamid, a moderate Muslim whose family regularly observes Friday prayer, said he feels threatened by Trump and that his “very identity was in jeopardy.”

But Hamid and Katyal are careful to position the organization, based at the Georgetown University Law Center, as nonpartisan. The institute seeks to uphold its interpretation of the Constitution and especially ensure checks on executive power, regardless of who’s in the White House. “We didn’t want to be a clearinghouse for Democrats donating money because they were upset Hillary didn’t win,” Katyal said.

Katyal himself has divided allegiances. A son of Indian immigrants, Katyal said he spent the whole day after Trump’s presidential victory moping in bed. But he’s a huge supporter of Neil Gorsuch, who Trump nominated to the Supreme Court over protests from Democrats. Katyal introduced Gorsuch to the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee at his confirmation hearing in March.

Hamid and Katyal have been friends for years. Katyal was an investor in Social Capital, the venture firm Hamid co-founded and where he served as general partner until joining Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers in August. Katyal is a Georgetown professor and prolific litigator, who has argued 34 cases in the U.S.’s highest court. Six of those occurred last term, more than any other lawyer in the country.

John Lilly, an investor at Greylock Partners, said he spent the week following Trump’s election crying, hugging friends and searching for solace. He was quickly convinced the institute’s approach would be effective. “Every dollar you put in goes to arguing a case in front of the Supreme Court,” he said.

Levie, the Box chief executive officer, helped bridge the gap from tech to entertainment. Levie, like Hamid, got to know Leto over the last five years as the actor became an active startup investor. The Blade Runner 2049 star hosted a fundraiser for the institute at his home in the Hollywood Hills, a 50,000-square-foot remodeled Army bunker. The event drew roughly 100 guests, including Alba and Perry, according to people who attended.

The institute’s Charlottesville lawsuit is intended to stop paramilitary groups from returning to Virginia, as some alt-right organizers have recently pledged to do, or attempting similar actions in the more than 40 other states with comparable laws. It claims militia groups violated state law by posing as armed forces. After the protest, which resulted in a woman’s death and dozens of injuries, Trump was criticized for blaming “both sides” before eventually condemning white supremacists.

“You shouldn’t have rogue militias that don’t report up through state authority and government,” said Joshua Geltzer, executive director at the institute. “They weren’t official, and yet, they had semi-automatic weapons.”

Geltzer is a former national security adviser at the Justice Department and senior director on the National Security Council. He’s helping evaluate dozens of other cases the institute may pursue but declined to provide details. The institute has supported legal efforts of other groups to defend sanctuary cities and push for bail reforms in Texas.

Many backers were most fixated on issues of government discrimination, and some offered personal tales to justify those concerns. Jon Sakoda, a general partner at New Enterprise Associates, said he was sensitive to singling out a group of Americans for their religion or ethnicity. His family members, along with more than 100,000 other Japanese Americans, were interned during World War II. “When Americans are deprived of their civil liberties, there is a cost, and we’ve regretted it,” he said. “We need to remember that history.”