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CCR President Jules Lobel on Social Justice Lawyering, Success Without Victory, and 30 Years With CCR

On May 4, 2016, CCR bestowed the Founders Award on Jules Lobel, our passionate cooperating attorney, board member since 1986, and current board president. Jules is the Bessie McKee Walthour Endowed Chair at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, author of numerous books and articles, and recipient of many awards, both for his teaching and his scholarship. He has testified before Congressional committees on war powers and argued before the Supreme Court for prisoners’ rights, and he advised the Nicaraguan government on the development of its constitution. Jules has been involved in many of CCR’s most important cases, from Rasul v. Bush, arguing for habeas corpus rights for Guantánamo detainees, to Arar v. Ashcroft, seeking justice for a Canadian citizen rendered to Syria by U.S. officials and tortured, to Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project, a Supreme Court case challenging the material aid to terrorism statute as violating the First Amendment. His most recent work with CCR is the landmark case Ashker v. Governor of California, a successful challenge to longterm, indefinite solitary confinement that has changed the lives of thousands of prisoners.

Jules, what led you to take up social justice lawyering, and how did you first get involved with CCR?

I was a trade union organizer working in rank-and-file struggles against corrupt union officials and oppressive management, and I saw how many of the activities we engaged in led to the law and led to lawyers. I thought I should find out more, so after I was fired from the bakery where I was organizing I went to Rutgers, not to be a lawyer but to learn the tools. When I graduated, a firm asked me to come do pro bono rank-and-file work, and then I went into academia. Michael Ratner asked me to help with some CCR cases, challenging human rights abuses in Central America, and 30 years later I’m still doing it.

The law can be the ultimate expression of state power: How do you see the law in relation to social justice movements?

I think the law generally is designed to maintain the status quo and maintain state power, but it’ s a tension, particularly in modern capitalism, that power is maintained through the use of laws that can be used by the oppressed to challenge that power. The key task for social movement lawyers is to use the law in a radical way to empower people, to help build movements, and to challenge in fundamental ways how state power is used. And that’s what I think the Center for Constitutional Rights does.

What role do you think teaching law students plays in the movement?

Polls show that most law students go to law school because they want to do meaningful work. The process of going through law school disabuses them of that notion, and the task of a radical law professor is to try to inspire students to see that the law can be more than money or power, that it can be used as a mechanism of social change. At least some law students find that message inspiring, and it creates a new generation of radical lawyers. What I do in law school is to try to emulate what CCR does with its Ella Baker program. Ella Baker is a fitting name to give the program because her work represents the people’s lawyering model that we all should aspire to.

You wrote a book called Success Without Victory: can you explain what that means?

It means that when you take a case, you often have to have broader goals than just winning in court. Many of the cases that the Center for Constitutional Rights has taken and that I personally have worked on, were cases that we knew would be difficult to win in court. Sometimes, like in the Guantanamo case, stop and frisk, or the Pelican Bay litigation, we managed to win. But often we did not. Even when we didn’t win in court, though, we had broader goals of aiding political movements, educating the public about an injustice, and challenging oppression when nobody else would. When we were able to achieve those goals, we were successful even without courtroom victory. If you take this attitude you can even sometimes win cases that nobody else would have brought. But my point is, even when you don’t win, you can still be successful if you help a movement against injustice.

You argued before the Supreme Court for the rights of Supermax prisoners, defended ACORN when it was under attack from Congress, and, of course, led the landmark litigation in California against solitary confinement, among so many other important cases. What case has been closest to your heart?

That’s a very tough question, because as you say, I’ve taken a very wide variety of cases that have had different political objectives. I love the cases we did challenging U.S. intervention in Central America in the 1980s because those cases really aided a political movement. I love my war powers cases because I think that hindering the president’s power to go to war alone is a critical political and constitutional issue. But the case that has had the most impact on me has been the recent Pelican Bay case. And it’s not because we won. It’s because of the deep bonds I’ve formed with the prisoners and how close I was able to get to people’s struggles in that case. This is the case where I dug the most down into a very oppressive situation – longterm, indefinite solitary confinement – and felt it most intimately and emotionally. The ability to connect with the clients, understand their pain, feel their oppression, and try to work together with them to overcome it has affected me deeply.

Where would you like to see CCR go in the next 50 years?

I think the critical issue today is social and economic inequality, and I’d like CCR to strategize on how to grapple with that issue and take it head on. And I’d like to make sure that CCR keeps to its egalitarian roots, both internally and in the work we do. I am totally confident that the current leadership and staff at the organization are up to the future tasks that confront us. It’s a pleasure and an honor to work with CCR.

Last modified 

May 5, 2016