The Daily Outrage

The CCR blog

Michael Ratner: A Human Rights Lawyer for His Generation and Beyond

Lawyer, professor, and writer Jonathan Hafetz shares his memories of late CCR President Emeritus Michael Ratner and the enduring mission of efforts to close Guantánamo, which is further explored in his new book. Check out Saturday’s NPR interview with Jonathan.

As the outpouring of tributes indicates, CCR’s late President Emeritus Michael Ratner was one of the leading progressive lawyers of his generation—a unique individual who managed to combine tenacious advocacy, visionary leadership, and human kindness.

I first met Michael in the early years of the Guántanamo detainee habeas corpus litigation.  At the time, CCR and a small group of lawyers were preparing to present the first Guantánamo habeas corpus cases to the U.S. Supreme Court.  I knew Michael only by reputation then.  He was a legendary attorney who had worked on many landmark cases.  Even though I was only a few years out of law school, Michael was incredibly welcoming and treated me like a peer.  

Michael recognized from the first instance that Guantánamo represented an assault on the Constitution and the rule of law.  As he later wrote, in The Guantánamo Lawyers: Inside a Prison, Outside the Law, a book on the Bush years at Guantánamo, which I edited with Mark P. Denbeaux:

I was quite shocked that the United States was planning to use Guantánamo as its offshore prison—again.  I say “again” because I had been one of the attorneys who worked on an earlier Guantánamo case: when the administrations of George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton had used the military base as an offshore “refugee camp” for Haitians who were entitled to asylum in the United States but who were prohibited from entering the country because they were HIV-positive.  I had learned important lessons from that litigation.  First, I learned that Guantánamo was a really bad place to be imprisoned.  I compared the refugee camp to Dante’s Ninth Circle of Hell, with its extreme heat, barbed wire, scorpions, hardscrabble ground, arbitrary beatings, hunger strikes, and appalling detention facilities.  Second, and of critical importance, the two prior administrations had argued, and somewhat successfully, that Guantánamo was a lawfree zone, that the refugees were not protected by the Constitution, and that no court could protect their rights.

Michael immediately recognized the importance of resisting the Bush administration’s effort to recreate a lawfree zone in the War on Terror after 9/11.  In hindsight, this might seem an inevitable decision. But it was not so at the time.  Ground Zero was still smoldering, and giving power to the president to protect the nation seemed paramount.  Plus, there was no evidence—yet—that the president was abusing his authority by sanctioning torture and other mistreatment.  Michael, however, saw that lawfree zones necessarily create the potential for such abuses.

Michael also knew that while some of the detainees at Guantánamo might be innocent, others might not be.  Nevertheless, he said, Guantánamo was so “contrary to law and represented such a threat to fundamental liberties that we needed to challenge it, particularly [the] denial of habeas corpus.”  Michael understood instinctively that habeas corpus was, as he put it, “the hallmark of a state in which authority is under law.”

Over the course of the next decade, I would have the great fortune to work closely with Michael and many other talented attorneys on the Guantánamo detainee cases.  Under Michael’s bold leadership, we won landmark decisions in the nation’s highest court, from Rasul v. Bushin 2004 to Boumediene v. Bush in 2008, that established the constitutional right of the detainees to habeas corpus.  While the subsequent years have been marked by disappointment over the prison’s continued existence, the litigation Michael helped launch succeeded in its fundamental mission: denying the U.S. government’s effort to maintain Guantánamo as a prison beyond the law.

Obama’s Guantánamo: Stories from an Enduring Prison, my latest book, released this month, takes a look at that enduring mission. A follow-up to The Guantánamo Lawyers and including essays from CCR Guantánamo lawyers and advocates, Pardiss Kebriaei, Shayana Kadidal, Omar Farah, Wells Dixon, and Aliya Hana Hussain, the book explores the Obama years of Guantánamo and the unwavering commitment by the “Gitmo Bar” to continue the effort Michael began nearly fifteen years ago.

Michael served as a mentor, teacher, and inspiration to a generation of public interest lawyers.   The degree and depth of his influence are beyond measure.  Just last week, I was speaking to a friend, Michel Paradis, when Michael’s passing came up in conversation.  Michel said that he had never met Michael, but had heard him speak at Fordham Law School.  At the time, Michel was a first-year student and focused on pursing a job in corporate law.  Michael’s talk, however, moved him and helped change the trajectory of his career.  Michael lectured that day about the Alien Tort Statute, a 200-plus-year-old federal law that Michael and CCR revitalized in the late 1970s to allow noncitizens to sue human rights violators in U.S. courts.

“I couldn’t believe it at the time,” Michel told me.  “I had no idea that you could hold torturers from other countries accountable, without any government’s consent.  I didn’t know such things were even possible.” 

Inspired by Michael, Michel currently works in the U.S. Department of Defense, Office of Chief Defense Counsel, where he carries on Michael’s legacy by serving as one of the principal attorneys challenging Guantánamo’s military commissions, the jerry-rigged trial system that continues to flout basic constitutional principles. 

Michael showed what was possible in the struggle for human rights and dignity.  He leaves behind monumental achievements and a profound legacy.  Michael remains an inspiration to those fighting for justice not only today, but also tomorrow and into the future.

Jonathan Hafetz is a professor at Seton Hall University School of Law.  He is, most recently, the editor of Obama’s Guantánamo: Stories from an Enduring Prison (NYU Press, 2016). On June 22, CCR and NYU Press will host a program and reception in NYC to celebrate the launch of the book, which is dedicated to the memory of Michael Ratner. 


Last modified 

June 20, 2016