Michael Ratner was one of the most accomplished radical lawyers of his generation, representing clients from Attica to Guantanamo. He served as president of the National Lawyers Guild and was legal director of the Center for Constitutional Rights for many years. Radicalzed in the late 1960s, he had no illusions about the ruling-class bias of the law under capitalism. He believed political action outside the courtroom was as important as anything that happened inside it.
Ratner died all too soon of cancer in 2016, at the age of 72. His friends completed the memoir he began before his death. Moving the Bar, published on May Day, is concise and easy to read for all who care about justice — a class of people that is, happily, much larger than the number of judges and lawyers. In it, he recounts the epic legal battles he fought and the turbulent movements he struggled alongside. He also candidly offers a glimpse of the thoughtful soul behind the legal legend.
Ratner’s tale spans his upbringing in Shaker Heights, at that time, a predominantly Jewish suburb of Cleveland. He was the son of a Polish father (Ratower became Ratner) who built a lumber-supply business despite failures and setbacks. His younger brother Bruce is the billionaire real-estate developer who brought the Brooklyn Nets basketball team to New York and spearheaded the Atlantic Yards mega-development. Like many young Jewish leftists of his era, Ratner took to heart the lessons of Nazi Germany. “Never again” meant speaking out and resisting the wrongdoing of one’s own government before it slid into barbarism.
By his second year at Columbia Law School, uprisings had broken out in dozens of cities where Blacks were plagued by poor housing, police violence, unemployment and political powerlessness. He landed a job at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. By 1969, when he graduated, his friends included red-diaper babies like Margie Leinsdorf, whom he would marry, and members of the Weather Underground. His academic credentials won him a position in the ivory tower, a clerkship for federal Judge Constance Baker Motley.
In his posthumous memoir, Michael Ratner recounts the epic legal battles he fought and the turbulent movements he struggled alongside.
Ratner fully embodied the mantra of the radical lawyer: “Educate, Demonstrate, Litigate.” After the 9/11 attacks, the time of the Patriot Act, roundups of Muslim immigrants, and the outsourcing of torture, he organized 600 lawyers to provide representation for accused “enemy combatants” detained in the prison camp at the U.S. Navy’s Guantanamo base in Cuba. Those lawyers gave him a custom-made “Guantanamo Bar Association” hat, which he frequently wore when participating in demonstrations and giving talks and lectures.
He describes the 2001 USA PATRIOT Act as a “300-page hodgepodge of new laws that Congress rejected since the 1970s.” Of President George W. Bush’s Executive Order #1 establishing military commissions to try accused terrorists, Ratner said “I considered it then and I consider it now a coup-d’état.”
He took part in many campaigns to end U.S. intervention in Central America and the Caribbean, including Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, Jamaica and Costa Rica. “It was only after the attacks of 9/11 in 2001, when the U.S. was so preoccupied with the war on terror in the Middle East and Central Asia, that some of the countries in Latin America were able to establish governments that benefited their people,” he observes.
A first-rate litigator, he recounts his heartbreaking losses as well as the wins. CCR’s lawsuit against New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller for the violent retaking of the Attica prison on September 9, 1971, was dismissed without a hearing. It ultimately took 27 years of appeals to win damages for those killed and brutalized by state troopers.
Ratner came to learn, he writes, that “the more serious the charge and the less the defendants resembled the class, race and ethnic background of the judge, the more likely a court would be to bend or ignore the law. Or give it lip service to it while denying relief.”
His long career teaching and litigating gave him the satisfaction of seeing historical parallels in recurring David-and-Goliath fights. He also saw the ironies, such as that Guantanamo (stolen from Cuba in 1898) had previously been used as a prison camp for 15,000 Haitian refugees were held after the U.S.-sanctioned coup against the leftist government of Jean Bertrand Aristide in 1991. The Center argued that Haitian refugees, fleeing by boat, had the right to enter the U.S., instead of being picked up by the Coast Guard and imprisoned.
Ratner says the U.S. government used Guantanamo as “a legal black hole.” Its ancestor was in 1679, when the British began using remote islands and military bases to hold dissidents in order to prevent any judicial inquiry into their imprisonment, in violation of the Magna Carta. The U.S. created military commissions and minted the term “enemy combatant,” for similar reasons.
The epitome of the organizer-lawyer, he did not limit his contributions to the courtroom. His political wisdom made him anticipate who might become a collateral victim, and make sure they had protection. While representing Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, he realized that Wikileaks associate Sarah Harrison, who was accompanying Wikileaks source Edward Snowden in Moscow, would need a new passport to be able to return to the U.K., so he found someone who could handle the task. Ratner also generously shares credit with the other lawyers and organizers who were part of the campaign.
Only with brevity and excellent editing can all of his cases and campaigns fit into this 357-page book. Through family vignettes, he reveals the emotional development that made him such an effective fighter for justice. Endearingly, he includes some of the hate mail he received
after standing up for alleged terrorists before military commissions at Guantanamo. He astutely observes that the Authorization for Use of Military Force, the blank check Congress gave the President in 2001, has already been used to authorize offensive actions in 37 countries where al-Qaeda is claimed to be present.
Wherever there was injustice, Michael Ratner would be there to fight it.
Ann Schneider is a member of the board of the NYC chapter of the National Lawyers Guild.
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