As a House Select Committee’s investigation into the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol brings the event into renewed focus, Rochester native Andrew Celli Jr. has played a peripheral but potentially significant role in the controversy swirling around the unprecedented event.
In the Jan. 6 melee, a throng of supporters of former President Donald Trump waved banners, including Confederate and American flags, as they overwhelmed a small police force to smash their way into the building. With the avowed goal of stopping Congress from certifying Joe Biden’s election as president, protestors vandalized the building and called for the deaths of Vice President Mike Pence and Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Critics see the Jan. 6 incursion an insurrection or coup attempt. The Select Committee is examining Trump’s actions related to the assault on the Capitol and whether he instigated an attempt to overturn his loss in the 2020 election.
The Republican National Committee has described the Jan. 6 melee as “legitimate political discourse,” and polls show that a majority of Republicans side with Trump’s claim that the election was rigged against him and see the protestors as within their rights.
A ballot challenge
The role in the Jan. 6 controversy played by Celli—who is perhaps best known locally as the lawyer who conducted an exhaustive probe of how former Mayor Lovely Warren’s administration handled the 2021 death of Daniel Prude—focuses on Marjorie Taylor Greene. It could, however, present an obstacle to a 2024 presidential bid by Trump.
Greene is a freshman Georgia representative known more for conspiracy-laced tweets and zealous promotion of the debunked claim that Trump actually won the 2020 election than for legislative action or policy prescriptions. She is one of 147 GOP members of Congress who, after the mob cleared the Capitol, voted on Jan. 6 against certifying Biden’s electoral victory.
She is also among a handful of Republican House members who, according to the sworn testimony of former Trump White House aides, asked to be preemptively pardoned for possible crimes related to the Jan. 6 insurrection. The committee has also cited communications between Greene and Trump chief of staff Mark Meadows in which Greene allegedly suggested that, as a means to keep the presidency, Trump might declare martial law.
Citing Greene’s alleged calls for violence against Democrats and her avid spreading of conspiracy theories denying the election’s legitimacy, the Democratic-controlled House voted to strip her of committee assignments in February 2021.
If the GOP gains control of the House in November, Greene expects to be again appointed to committees. She says that she wants to be named to the Judiciary Committee with the goal of pushing Biden’s impeachment on so far unstated grounds.
However, backed by a Massachusetts-based activist nonprofit, Free Speech for People, six Greene constituents are challenging the Georgia representative’s bid for a second term. And Celli has played a key role in the drive to keep Greene off the ballot.
A novel approach
As a lawyer questioning Greene on the stand in the challenge to her candidacy, Celli drew a spate of national attention a few months ago.
The grounds on which the left-leaning group seeks to challenge to Greene’s candidacy are novel. The challenge cites Section 3 of the Constitution’s 14th Amendment, which dates to the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, that bars any person who has sworn an oath to defend the Constitution and has engaged in insurrection or rebellion from holding any federal or state office.
Drafted to keep former Confederate soldiers, officials and citizens from running for office, the clause was, for practical purposes, mooted after President Andrew Johnson granted amnesty to all Confederate soldiers and officials in 1868. In 1872, Congress passed a blanket amnesty covering all former Confederate citizens.
Until Celli and Free Speech for People called it back into service, the 14th Amendment clause appeared to be a vestigial relic, an appendix on the American body politic.
As Greene sat on the stand defending herself against the challenge in a hearing in April, Celli peppered her with scores of questions designed to root out her alleged role as an instigator and supporter of the Jan. 6 riot.
While Celli’s thrust failed to pierce Greene’s armor, their exchange mostly drew attention for what many saw as her stubborn recalcitrance and lack of candor.
The Greene candidacy challenge is an administrative proceeding. Its goal is to have Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensberger disallow Greene second-term bid.
To demonstrate Greene’s alleged role as an insurrectionist, Celli cited a voluminous record of Greene’s pre-Jan. 6 tweets, social media posts and public statements. In those communications, she decried the election as stolen and called on Trump loyalists to take action to reverse the election outcome.
Greene mostly parried Celli’s thrusts with claims to not recall whether she made such statements.
She maintained that she only supported peaceful protest but did not confirm or deny that she made any incendiary statements.
Celli describes his courtroom interchange with Greene as eerily “like talking to a being from another planet. Every once in a while, she saw that I wasn’t inside her bubble and that’s when she went to ‘I don’t remember.’”
He sees her apparent amnesia as unlikely.
“Greene’s defense rests virtually entirely on her claim to not remember making any potentially damning statements. She answered ‘I don’t recall’ or some version thereof more than 80 times during the hearing,” Celli wrote in a post-hearing filing submitted to Administrative Law Judge Charles Beaudrot. “Where, as here, petitioners have proven the statements and events Greene claimed not to recall, her testimony that she did not ‘recall’ those statements or events can be—and should be—deemed not credible.”
Says Celli: “It seems to me that if I were a newly elected member of Congress having meetings with the president of the United States and his top aides about a constitutional crisis in the United States and the threat of violence in the Capitol and objections to a new person becoming president, these events would be burned in my brain.
“It would be very difficult for me to forget what I had said and done because it was so important historically. Common sense refutes her defense. But I don’t get to make that judgment. I’m just a lawyer. I’m leaving it to the judge to decide, but I can say I wasn’t buying it.”
Beaudrot was not as skeptical.
In a May 16 decision, the judge found in Greene’s favor, ruling that the burden of proof was on the plaintiffs and that they failed to conclusively show that Greene was an insurrectionist.
“The difficulty with Challengers’ theory is the lack of evidence. Whatever the exact parameters of the meaning of “engage” as used in the 14th Amendment, and assuming for these purposes that the Invasion was an insurrection, Challengers have produced insufficient evidence to show that Rep. Greene ‘engaged’ in that insurrection after she took the oath of office on January 3, 2021,” the judge wrote.
After Beaudrot ruled, Raffensberger declared the issue settled and Greene’s right to run intact. Greene later won a Republican primary and is slated to appear on the November ballot, for now.
Free Speech for People legal director Ron Fein, who teamed with Celli in questioning Greene on the stand, sees the challenge as far from over, however. The group has mounted an appeal of the Beaudrot’s ruling.
Celli and his law firm, Emery, Celli, Brinckerhoff, Abady & Maazel LLP, have a longstanding relationship with Free Speech for People.
A 29-lawyer litigation boutique, Emery, Celli is widely known for its civil rights work. Nine of the firm’s 14 partners including Celli are listed by Lawdragon among the country’s 500 best civil rights and employment plaintiff-side attorneys.
Celli, a founding partner and roughly 30-year veteran of the firm, sees it as a sort of second family.
In joining and helping build the firm, he says, “I found my way into a situation where I get to practice law with people I love. These friends of mine who are my law partners, these are the kind of people I’d leave my kids with. These are dear, dear friends. All of my partners are people who are deeply ethical and just care about the world. To spend every day working with them is a joy.”
Celli joined the firm in 1993 as Emery’s first and only employee.
“He was a guy I knew from politics. He needed help. I decided to change my life,” says Celli, who at the time was not especially happily working for an old-line, corporate law firm.
Emery was working his way through an increasingly crammed docket of police misconduct cases. He was of counsel with Lankenau, Kovner & Bickford, a firm known for its civil rights work that has since been folded into another firm.
Emery had stepped back from a partnership to devote all his time to police misconduct cases. Celli had applied for a job at Lankenau, Kovner but was rejected by the firm’s hiring committee. Name partner Victor Kovner, a noted First Amendment lawyer, thought the committee had erred.
“Victor Kovner came to me and said, ‘I don’t know why they didn’t hire this Celli guy, but he’s terrific. I think you ought to hire him,’” Emery recalls.
“Andy had a lot of life and ambition,” he says. “I think he was despondent at the time because of the work he was doing. I hired him and he dove right in. He was a young lawyer, but he learned very quickly.”
A 1990 graduate of the New York University School of Law, Celli clerked for a federal judge in the Eastern District of New York before signing on as an associate with Cravath, Swain & Moore LLP, a 1,000-lawyer, white-shoe Manhattan firm. He was embarking on a life he had not imagined.
“I never expected to live in New York,” says Celli. “I always thought I would come home, live in the city and run for office, marry a nice Irish girl, something like that. But I met a nice Jewish girl in college.”
Just before graduating from law school, Celli married Ellen Unterberg, the daughter of New York City investment banker Thomas Unterberg. The couple met as undergraduates at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, where Celli earned a B.A. in political science. The ceremony at the Plaza Hotel was jointly officiated by a rabbi and a Roman Catholic priest.
The Cellis settled and still live in Manhattan. Ellen Celli is a jewelry maker and goldsmith.
At Cravath, Swain, says Celli, “I was doing antitrust defense, representing large pharmaceutical companies. It was just not for me. I learned a lot about the trade, the craft of being a lawyer, but the substance was just not for me.”
As Emery’s and Celli’s civil rights caseload continued to grow, Celli suggested law school classmates as further hires who could help relieve their burden. Emery hired them.
“I trusted Andy’s judgment and they all worked out very well,” Emery says.
Celli’s law school classmates formed the core of what became Emery, Celli.
Eventually organizing as an independent firm, the Emery, Celli group left Lankenau, Kovner, moving into its own offices on Madison Avenue. As it grew, taking on more partners and associates, the firm relocated to its present Rockefeller Center location.
Six years after joining Emery in 1999, Celli began a four-year hiatus from the budding firm, signing on as the head of state Attorney General Eliot Spitzer’s civil rights bureau.
Emery says that when Celli rejoined Emery, Celli in 2003, he returned with a host of important new contacts and enhanced prestige that has since helped make him a significant player in New York City and state legal circles.
Celli’s portfolio is diverse. It includes cases like defense of two allegedly wrongly arrested African-American brothers but also a complaint by a top-level art collector against Sotheby’s auction house that centers on a John Michael Basquiat artwork. His client list includes New York City’s City Council, Rochester City Council and Rochester’s recently formed Police Accountability Board.
Still a Rochesterian
A frequent return visitor to his hometown, Celli says that despite having lived and worked in New York City for some 30 years, he sees himself as “still a Rochesterian.”
Even so, when Council President Loretta Scott first interviewed him for the City Council position, Celli says, “all she knew is that the ACLU recommended me. She had no idea that I was from Rochester.”
Celli’s name is probably most familiar to many Rochesterians because of his work related to the Daniel Prude case. The death of Prude, a Black man who died after being detained by Rochester police officers, was revealed publicly only after Prude’s family obtained video footage of his arrest and held a press conference on City Hall’s steps. The city’s decision to keep the incident under wraps for months sparked widespread protests.
In the probe, Celli determined that Warren and former Chief of Police La’Ron Singletary were unwilling to publicly acknowledge the circumstances of Prude’s death and that Warren’s claim to have learned of the circumstances only late in the game did not line up with other city officials’ testimony.
Says Celli: “What I tell people about that investigation is that it was a whodunit, and the answer is everybody. Everybody had a role to play. Sometimes you could say it was for venal reasons and sometimes it was for noble reasons or maybe a little of both. But there was nobody who came out of that without us having to say that they could have done more to make this a public issue.”
Strong family ties
Celli traces his penchant for the law and for civil rights work to the influence of his father, Andrew Celli Sr.
The elder Celli, who died in 1990 at 66, was a leading light among area Democrats and respected jurist.
A onetime Rochester Council member, Celli’s father became the first Monroe County Democrat in 40 years to be elected to a countywide office when he won a seat the Monroe County Court bench. He had previously served as a Rochester City Court judge.
The youngest of three siblings, Celli grew up in a close-knit family on Seneca Parkway in the city’s Maplewood section. He attended local Catholic parochial schools, Sacred Heart elementary and McQuaid Jesuit High School. His brother, Romolo Celli, a real estate agent and local arts patron who goes by Rome professionally, recalls their neighborhood as a place where the family was surrounded by friends and relatives.
“Our house,” says Andrew Celli, “was a place where at the dinner table you’d talk about what’s happening in the world and right and wrong. My dad’s career was one where was this was who he was as a person. He didn’t just have a job. He was a lawyer and a judge and that was also who he was in his private life.
“We heard a lot about justice questions growing up and we were asked a lot of justice questions growing up. For me, going to law school was something I decided to do super young, probably in grammar school.”
Rome Celli jokes that he is family’s only non-lawyer. Starting out in real estate, he followed the career path of his now-retired real estate agent mother Delores Celli, partnering with her in Empire Realty brokerage.
For the Celli siblings, their childhood section remains a source of warm memories, Rome Celli says. Sister Andrea and Andrew (“Only his friends call him Andy; to the family, he’s always Andrew”) call their mother nightly and the three siblings and their mother do a weekly Zoom call.
In addition to their civil rights work, Celli and other firm partners devote half their time to commercial work. The hourly-billed commercial-law work cushions the civil rights work, which is done on contingency, an arrangement in which lawyers collect fees only for cases they win.
On the commercial side, says Emery, “we don’t do as well as lawyers at some of the big firms, but we do pretty well,” an assertion the firm’s prestigious Rockefeller Center address would seem to buoy.
Celli calls the firm’s commercial work “rich people suing rich people over money.” The wry gibe notwithstanding, he insists that he doesn’t see commercial work as a burden or resent it as taking him away from his avowed first love, civil rights law.
“I get political pleasure out of doing work that I believe in at an ideological level,” Celli says. “But it’s not so much that I see myself as a civil rights lawyer. It’s more that I’m a lawyer who has clients who have civil rights problems.
“There are ideals and there are principles that we’re trying to pursue,” he adds, “but there’s also a person at the beginning, middle and the end of every case. That person is my client. She or he has goals. Sometimes they line up perfectly with some platonic ideal of a what a civil rights case is supposed to be and sometimes they don’t. People are messy. My goal is to try to find a way to serve the person.”
Though he idealized the practice of civil rights law from an early age, Celli sees his hybrid practice as perhaps more fulfilling than the law he imagined himself doing as a youth.
“My ideal,” says Celli, “would have been a more abstract practice where I was pursuing the thoughts and principles that I thought were important. I think honestly if I had gotten there, either I would have been bored or very self-satisfied in a way that’s not healthy. I like the messiness of having people for clients. It’s off the path that I would have predicted when I was 18, but in a good way.”
To Celli, at the heart of every legal dispute, be it civil rights or a contract case, is the same question: Who is lying and who is telling the truth? He thinks this applies in spades to the Marjorie Taylor Greene case.
The Greene case is the only one left standing of several similar challenges Free Speech for People and Emery, Celli mounted against election-denying Republican candidates on 14th Amendment grounds. Challenges Free Speech for People mounted to three Arizona candidates were shot down by that state’s courts.
A challenge to the candidacy Rep. Madison Cawthorn, R-N.C., became moot after Cawthorn lost a Republican primary to run for a second term. The Arizona and North Carolina cases were handled by other Emery, Celli partners.
Despite the failure of the Arizona cases, the irrelevancy of the North Carolina challenge and the still-uncertain outcome of the Greene case, Celli, Richard Emery and Free Speech for People’s Fein see a measure of success in their effort.
For one thing, no state court ruling has yet found the 14th Amendment clause to be an improper vehicle to challenge a candidacy. And a federal appeals court ruling has explicitly found the tactic to be valid.
“The administrative law judge’s decision to shift the burden of proof was erroneous on its own, but even if it were not, it was erroneous in combination with the administrative law judge’s order quashing petitioners’ notice to produce (evidence). Petitioners were deprived of relevant evidence while Greene was relieved of any incentive to produce evidence to establish her qualifications,” states the appeal brief filed by Fulton County, Ga., lawyer Bryan Sells.
Celli sees his inability to depose Greene in advance of the hearing and the ALJ’s refusal to allow discovery as a move that hobbled his courtroom presentation and made it easy for Greene to brush off his questions with virtual impunity.
“Normally,” says Celli, “in a civil context, you take a deposition where you get to ask all these questions and you know what the answers are going to be and you can frame it in just the way to get the answers you expect. In this case, we had no deposition. We had no ability to get her text messages, her emails, her cell phone records, none of the things that you would have in preparation.
“So we were doing it on things that she had said publicly that we could find,” he notes. “And, of course, a lot of the things she’d said publicly had been taken down by Twitter and Facebook. We were deprived of the original versions. We had these other versions, but she’d say, ‘Well, Mother Jones or CNN found that, so I can’t trust that.’”
The appeal in the Greene case is slated for oral argument in a Fulton County Superior Court in mid-July. Celli expects it ultimately to reach the state’s Supreme Court. Unless the Georgia courts decide to rule on the 14th Amendment tactic’s constitutionality, it will likely stop there, he predicts.
The Arizona rulings took no position on whether the GOP candidates’ election denialism and alleged support for the Jan. 6 insurrection disqualifies them from running for office, but said that the question should be decided by Congress. And while the Cawthorn challenge became moot, it led to a key federal court finding that support the 14th Amendment tactic.
Before he was knocked out of the North Carolina race, Cawthorn disputed the right of the challengers to use the 14th Amendment’s disqualification clause against him, arguing that the general amnesty Congress granted to Confederates in 1872 made the clause moot. A lower federal court agreed, but a Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals panel reversed the ruling.
While they reversed the district court decision on procedural grounds, the appellate panel went further, ruling that a 14th Amendment challenge remains a viable means to kick insurrectionists off the ballot.
“Having cleared the procedural underbrush, we arrive at the merits of the district
court’s reading of the 1872 Amnesty Act. Reviewing the court’s interpretation de novo,
we conclude that it erred in construing the Act as a sweeping removal of all future Fourteenth Amendment disabilities,” the two-judge panel’s ruling states.
Whatever the outcome of the Greene case, the federal appeals panel’s ruling in Cawthorn’s challenge leaves open the possibility of a 14th Amendment challenge to a Trump run for a second term in 2024, says Fein, declaring Free Speech for People ready to mount a case.
Should that challenge happen, predicts Emery, “I’m sure Andy Celli will be at the center of it.”