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July 16 2018

Harmeet Dhillon

by Charlotte Hays

After James Damore was fired by Google in response to his famous memo alleging that the company's diversity policies actually discriminate against conservatives--especially male conservatives--the formerly obscure tech geek looked around for a lawyer to take his case.  The answer was obvious: Harmeet Dhillon, a media savvy lawyer who has built a business litigation career with a niche practice in high-tech employment discrimination cases.

"The one-liner for our firm is business litigation boutique," says Dhillon. About a third of the work of the San Francisco-based Dhillon Law Group, Inc.--which bills itself as "skilled.aggressive.responsive" --is employment litigation, mostly for plaintiffs, including senior executives or founders of tech firms.

The India-born Dhillon, 49, who has practiced law in New York and London, is a stalwart of California's Sikh community, in part because of her success representing fellow Sikhs who have faced job discrimination because of the outward and visible signs--such as turbans--of their religious affiliation. She has handled many employment and public accommodation cases for Sikhs pro bono.

Another high-profile case: Dhillon represents the Berkeley College Republicans and Young Americans for Freedom in YAF v. Napolitano¸ where the conservative groups claim that UC Berkeley violated their First Amendment rights by barring conservative speakers and instituting arcane restrictions when conservatives are invited to speak on campus. The federal court presiding over the case recently ruled that it could proceed to trial.

One of the ironies of her field, says Dhillon, is that laws and regulations meant to protect people from discrimination can backfire and create different kinds of workplace bias.

One of the ironies of her field, says Dhillon, is that laws and regulations meant to protect people from discrimination can backfire and create different kinds of workplace bias.

The Obama administration’s requirement that the EEOC collect and report data on women and minorities contributed to this potential backlash.

"This imposed a big burden in the workplace," Dhillon says, "and it is being used by plaintiff lawyers to sue a company every time the company doesn't have the exact equity in representation of women and certain minorities, even though there may be legitimate reasons for that, such as lesser rates of applicants from certain demographics, or individual choices of workers explaining differential attrition rates."

If you watched the Republican National Convention in 2016, you might just vaguely remember that the second day was kicked off by a woman singing a prayer in Punjabi and then translating it into English. That woman was Harmeet.

Perhaps that prayer at the Republican convention highlighted Harmeet's membership in several minorities. In addition to being a Sikh American, Harmeet is a Republican in California, a state whose political landscape is dominated by Democrats. Make that a Republican in San Francisco, Nancy Pelosi's hometown.

In 2016, Dhillon became RNC Committeewoman from California. Before that, she had been elected Vice Chairman of the California GOP twice, and had been Chairman of the San Francisco GOP for four years, in addition to holding many other leadership positions in the party.

Dhillon was considered to head the Civil Rights Division in the Trump Department of Justice and met with Attorney Jeff Sessions to talk about the job.

As for belonging to a party that is a minority statewide, Harmeet says, "I felt as a citizen my only way to have any say or make things better was to get involved in politics. You hope to at least shape the dialogue and maybe organize a voting bloc than can help change an election, even if you couldn't get your candidate elected, or get elected yourself."

"What is happening in California is that the state is becoming so extreme that successful, middle class people are leaving the state. What does that mean for California? The tax base is beginning to shrink, while the demands on the public sector are growing. That is a train wreck, unless the next governor turns it around."

"What is happening in California is that the state is becoming so extreme that successful, middle class people are leaving the state. What does that mean for California? The tax base is beginning to shrink, while the demands on the public sector are growing. That is a train wreck, unless the next governor turns it around."

It is hard to remember but California, which went for Republican George H.W. Bush as late as 1988, wasn't always deep  blue. "Demographic shifts in California should be a harbinger for the rest of the country," says Dhillon. "It's all going to come down to immigration." Dhillon doesn't foresee change "if we don't control our borders and enforce our laws."

At the time Dhillon spoke to IWF, she mentioned what she called "an obscure development that could be a sea change in California." She was referring to theJanus case, which the Supreme Court has since decided. Because of the ruling inJanus, public sector employers who don't want to belong to public sector unions will not be forced to pay union dues.

"The public sector political contributions in California really drive Sacramento politics," she said. "So many Democratic members of our legislature are elected to the legislature never having had an honest private sector job that didn't involve union backing, union money." Dhillon hoped that the Janus decision might provide a positive change in Sacramento.

Harmeet Dhillon is not the U.S.'s most famous Republican of Sikh descent--that honor undoubtedly belongs to Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley. Harmeet was born Chandigarh, India but grew up in North Carolina. Her father is a now-retired orthopedic surgeon, and her mother is the daughter of a four-star general in the Indian Air Force.

"People know India today as a thriving democracy," she says, "but in the 1960s and 1970s, it was a Soviet client state. It was a repressive state in many ways. The rulers of the country, the Gandhi dynasty, were imposing very aggressive family planning requirements, strongly encouraging families to have no more than two children, favoring sterilization of poor people in many parts of the country. There was a planned economy. A doctor and a general's daughter--these are people who would have had unlimited opportunities in the rest of the world. Not in India. You had running water only certain times a day, had to wait for years to get a telephone hooked up in your house. You are told how many children you can have." She adds, with a sardonic laugh, "Sort of like how California tries to control all aspects of our lives now."

The family came to the U.S., where  Harmeet's father completed his medical training at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx. After a trip to Florida to take Harmeet and her brother Disney in Florida, her parents stopped in Smithfield, North Carolina to visit a medical school classmate who was a physician there. Upon learning that there was no orthopedic surgeon in town, Harmeet's parents made the immediate decision to move to Smithfield, where her father established a thriving medical practice.

Harmeet was less sold on Smithfield. "I definitely experienced some hazing and discrimination at school. I had a long braid and my brother wore a little turban. One of the saving graces of my education in North Carolina was that North Carolina had a public school for students gifted in science and mathematics skills. Smithfield itself was pretty limiting in those fields." Harmeet and her brother did spend summers in India where they received instruction in the Sikh religion and in classical music. She is a practicing Sikh.

When it came time to go away to college, Harmeet was accepted by Duke and Dartmouth. Dartmouth won out. At Dartmouth, Harmeet had two life-changing experiences: working for the conservative Dartmouth Review, where she ultimate was named editor and made such friends as Laura Ingraham, Dinesh D'Souza, and Keeney Jones (now Father Michael Keenan Jones), and taking classes from Professor Jeffrey Hart, now Professor Emeritus of English at Dartmouth.

"I became enchanted with the classics because of Professor Hart," Harmeet recalls. "He strongly encouraged us to study the humanities, not to the exclusion of other fields but with them. As a result of his recommendations, I decided to take ancient Greek and Latin classes at Dartmouth. I really loved the small classes and seminar-like environment, the pedagogical focus on something that is obscure and yet relatable and has implications for the modern world." Dhillon became a classics major and studied ancient Latin, Greek, art history, architecture, history, and archaeology.

Dhillon was the editor of the Dartmouth Review when the paper was engaged in lawsuits with Dartmouth as a result of two editors and a photographer having been suspended after writing a story critical of a music professor. The students were ultimately reinstated as a result of the cases, in which the students and newspaper were represented by ACLU-affiliated attorneys.

“What I learned from that process is that lawyers can play a very important role in safeguarding our civil rights in our country,” Dhillon recalled to the Mercury News. “That really left an impression on me.” Partly because of this experience, she  ultimately decided to pursue a career in the law.

There was a foray into journalism, however, before throwing herself into the study and practice of law. Recommended by Dinesh D’Souza, she landed a job working for Adam Meyerson, when he was editor of the old Policy Review magazine, a highly literate publication of the Heritage Foundation. She also wrote opinion pieces for the Wall Street Journal. 

Dhillon is a graduate of the University of Virginia Law School. She was president of the largest law school chapter of the Federalist Society at the time, and was a law-clerk for Judge Paul Niemeyer on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. She has worked on cases with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty and, less well-known, has counseled and represented women who have experien ed domestic violence. Just a fun fact: Dhillon successfully represented Trilochan Oberoi, a Sikh who had been barred from employment as a prison guard because he refused to shave his beard as a result of his Sikh faith. Opposing counsel was Kamala Harris, who represented the state in her then-capacity as California's Attorney General. The case ended in a settlement in which California agreed to hire Oberoi and pay him back pay and attorney fees after four years of litigation.

Although Harmeet doesn't expect California to become a red state "anytime soon," she clearly relishes her role in the Republican Party in perhaps the nation's bluest state. "I love California," she says. "My business is here, and I have been practicing law for eighteen years in California. There are two choices--one is to give in, and the other is to resist. I am in resistance mode."

But politely, with meticulously made legal arguments and poise. When she won the vice chairmanship of the California GOP, a major party donor observed that she had gotten there on merit, saying, " She's the first woman vice chair in party history. There was no royal road paved for her." But she seems to be heading up a road that, royal or not, is making her a force to be reckoned with in GOP circles, and even beyond California.

IIndependent Women's Forum is an educational 501(c)(3) dedicated to developing and advancing policies that aren’t just well intended, but actually enhance people’s freedom, choices, and opportunities. IWF is the sister organization of the Independent Women’s Voice.​
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