Harmeet Dhillon gained attention for delivering a Sikh prayer during the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland. Now, the 48-year-old California lawyer is in the running to lead the Justice Department’s important Civil Rights Division under Attorney General Jeff Sessions and President Donald Trump. Dhillon is also vice chair of the California Republican Party.
If she’s nominated and confirmed, she would be the first permanent female lawyer to hold the job. In 2014, President Barack Obama named Vanita Gupta to be the Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division on an interim basis. She was never confirmed to the role which remained open after Tom Perez became the Secretary of Labor.
Dhillon has been married three times. She was first in an arranged marriage, which ended after the man abused her. She was then married to Dr. Kanwarjit Singh. In 2011, she married her third husband, Sarvjit Randhawa. She does not have any children.
Dhillon was born in Chandigarh, India. Her parents first emigrated to New York, then later moved to North Carolina. As SFGate notes, she also has a brother, Manddeep Singh Dhillon. Her father, Tejpal Singh Dhillon, is a physician and her mother is Parminder Kaur Dhillon.
Here is a look at Dhillon’s life and career.
1. Dhillon Met With Jeff Sessions About the Job Last Week
The Wall Street Journal reported on March 9 that Dhillon is being considered to lead the Civil Rights Division, which is responsible for enforcing federal civil rights and voting rights. It also leads investigations into alleged violations of these laws.
Sources told the Wall Street Journal that Dhillon met with Attorney General Jeff Sessions last week. Sessions has been criticized for how he has handled the division so far, especially for a “pull back” on civil rights lawsuits against local police departments.
Dhillon has defended Sessions, writing a San Francisco Chronicle op-ed about Sessions being accused of racism during his confirmation hearings.
“Sessions was denied the judgeship more than 30 years ago on the basis of flimsy, biased and manifestly unfair accusations, many of which were later recanted or found to be false,” she wrote.
2. Dhillon Represented Trump Supporters in a civil Rights Lawsuit Against San Jose Police
Last year, The Associated Press reported that Dhillon was representing 14 Trump supporters who said that the San Jose police department violated their civil rights by not protecting them during Trump’s June 2, 2016 rally in the city. Police arrested 20 people at the rally and the lawsuit claims that 24 people reported assaults. The defendants accused the police of a slow response to the alleged assaults.
Dhillon later told the AP that the comments from San Jose officials made it clear “that their inaction was colored by political viewpoint considerations.”
As the Sacramento Bee notes, Dhillon opened that rally with the Pledge of Allegiance.
The lawsuit was not very successful. In October 2016, the The Mercury News reported that three of the four claims were dismissed by a judge. However, the judge refused to dismiss the negligence claim.
“The city wanted the case to go away altogether, and that hasn’t happened,” Dhillon told the Mercury News. “I think it’s significant that negligence stays in the case because it means we’ll take depositions from city employees about their preparation and training for the event.”
3. Dhillon’s Second Husband Was Shot at in New York in 1995
in 1995, Dhillon’s second husband, Dr. Kanwarjit Singh, was shot in New York, where she was living at the time. Singh was a doctor at New York Medical Center and was shot at by a drunk man. All the bullets went wild but one, which fractured several ribs, The New York Times reported. The suspect was identified a Abu Muhammad.
The man screamed racist slurs at Singh, even calling him a “Hindu.” “Of course, my husband is a Sikh, not a Hindu,” Dhillon told the Times.
“He did a surgical residency in San Francisco, but after three years he decided to change his field to internal medicine,” Dhillon told the Times of her husband. “He wanted an easier life style. He wanted to settle down.”
More recently, Dhillon herself has been the victim of racist language. As The Huffington Post reported in 2013, when she was running for the California GOP Vice Chair seat, Vera Eyzendooren, the president of the San Bernadino County Federation of Republican Women, wrote on Facebook that “because of her religion her loyalty is to the Muslim religion.” Eyzendooren later told a local newspaper that her comments were taken out of context. Still, the comments were denounced by California Republicans.
“The views expressed by Ms. Eyzedooren in no way reflect those of the California Federation of Republican Women,” the group wrote on Facebook. “That type of hate speech has no place in our party or organization.”
4. After 9/11, She Wrote Legal Memos to Defend the Sikh Community From Racial Profiling
Dhillon has worked to preserve the civil rights of the Sikh community. She spent the majority of her time after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks writing legal memos for the Sikh Coalition, a human rights organization dedicated to protecting the Sikh community’s civil rights, as well as the civil rights of others. The group was founded after 9/11 following the murder of Balbir Singh Sodhi, which was considered a hate crime.
As SFGate noted in a 2011 profile of Dhillon, she was also on the board of the Northern California chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. She also defended employees of Berkeley’s KPFA radio station and her third husband is a former board member of the station.
She told SFGate that she doesn’t want to challenge Roe v. Wade or same-sex marriage because she doesn’t think the government should take a stand on marriage issues.
While at Dartmouth during her teens, she joined the conservative newspaper The Review, where she found herself in the middle of a controversy. In 1988, the paper published a story about an African-American music professor who accused three students of harassment. Two were later reinstated by a judge and the case involved free speech and race.
“That was definitely a seminal moment in my life,” Dhillon told SFGate. “It was clear that my talents were more with writing and being with other people than being a doctor.”
5. Dhillon Survived Abuse From her First Husband
Dhillon has been married three times. Her first husband was a doctor from India and it was an arranged marriage. As she told Voice of America, she was abused and the marriage lasted a year.
“He seemed like a good solid candidate and unfortunately it did not go that well. I was a victim of domestic violence and managed to leave the marriage after a year and went to law school two weeks after I left my husband,” she told VOA.
In her SFGate interview, Dhillon said her first husband almost “beat me to death.” She told her parents, “I know divorce isn’t acceptable in our culture, but I don’t give a damn. I’m leaving.”
She then went to the University of Virginia to get her law degree. Then, she married Singh. The marriage lasted until 2003, as their careers on opposite ends of the country made it impossible. She then moved to San Francisco to start her own law firm.
Her career in politics took off in 2004, when she hosted a house party for a presidential debate between President George W. Bush and John Kerry. Initially, San Francisco Republicans were weary of her because of her ACLU past. In 2008, she ran in the Assembly race and received 17 percent of the vote, which was the best for a Republican in her district since 1994.
“When you’re one of the best-known Republicans from the Bay Area, you are bound to attract lunatic, fringe people who will say certain things,” Shawn Steel, national committeeman to the RNC from California, told the Wall Street Journal. “She’s a gift to the Republican Party because she’s quite unafraid and very articulate.”