Michael’s Gifts – Statement for the National Lawyers Guild Dinner in Honor of Michael Ratner – by Harold Koh

Michael Ratner is the most generous lawyer I have ever met. I could have said “brilliant,” “funny,” or “excitable,” because those words also come to mind, but in the end Michael’s generosity sticks with you. It is the way he has given–to so many, over so many years, and against such odds–that makes Michael such a great lawyer.

I first saw Michael more than ten years ago, when he was arguing Sanchez-Espinoza v. Reagan before the D.C. Circuit. I was sitting with some Justice Department lawyers, and we knew we had the case won. But for some reason, we weren’t having very much fun. As Michael argued, he looked like Don Quixote: bearded, idealistic, a little crazy, destined to lose. But my gut told me that he, and not I, was on the right side. There was something about his spirit that made me want to join him.

Happily, that case came to pass five years ago, when Michael came to Yale Law School to co-found the Allard K. Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic. In a few short years, that clinic has made remarkable strides. We have filed dozens of briefs, made some good law, freed hundreds of detainees, sent dozens of students to careers in public interest law, and won millions of dollars in judgments (all of them uncollected, I might add). But our greatest accomplishment is what Michael has given his students. From the start, theirs was a marriage made in heaven. Michael is a born teacher. The students loved him instantly and deeply: witness that twenty of them are here tonight, from as far away as Florida. The students love the way Michael cares, the way he throws himself into cases, the way he steps back from the heat of the moment to marvel at it all. During our two-year fight for Haitian refugees, he was always there–sleeping on couches in the Law School faculty lounge, turning up on conference calls from the bleachers at Shea Stadium, lobbying NSC officials at the Old Executive Office Building, greeting refugees at LaGuardia, taking trip after trip to Guantanamo. But what we will remember are the little things. On the night we were first stayed by the Supreme Court, Michael stayed up until two in the morning persuading a first-year student not to give up on law school. He and Karen welcomed scores of students to crash at their house in the Village. He treated more students than I can count as equals and friends.

Michael can find the humor in any situation, finding the line that keeps us sane, that helps us remember why we’re fighting. When we first landed on Guantanamo, to visit our Haitian clients being held behind barbed wire, I said, “Michael, isn’t this incredible?” He said, “You’re right. I can’t believe I’m finally landing in the non-communist part of Cuba.” Another time, we were trying to schedule a meeting at 3. “Can we make it 4?” Michael asked. “I’m getting arrested at 3.” After one particularly vicious conference call, where the Government lawyers were attacking us furiously, we were all exhausted. Michael broke the silence by saying, “You know what, folks? I don’t think they love us.” Seconds before a Second Circuit argument, with all of us sitting there tensely, the government lawyer approached us and said, “Michael, I don’t think I’ve seen you since the Gulf War.” Michael told him, “You know, those war cases are great cases. You threaten to invade, we file suit, you invade, and it’s over.”

Most of all, Michael gives to his clients. I’ve seen him on Guantanamo, dripping with sweat, embracing clients dying of AIDS. I’ve seen him in the slums of Port-au-Prince, raging at the poverty and the squalor and the corruption. I’ve seen him in courtrooms and at press conferences, listening to his clients, comforting them, and encouraging them to keep fighting. Michael is the only lawyer I know who really doesn’t care who gets the credit. He will work all night on a brief that he can’t sign. He will give up oral arguments if it will help the case. He will refer newspaper reporters to others, if they did the work. He will keep the clients and their problems, and not himself, in the public eye.

Finally, let me say, “Thanks, Michael,” for what you have given me. I have not always practiced law with members of the National Lawyers Guild. By his words and his example, Michael dragged me out of the ivory tower and into the streets. There are lawyers in this country who laugh when they hear the words “international human rights”; who like to sneer at do-gooders like Michael Ratner. But Michael gave me a model of commitment, the guts to sneer back, and the courage not to care what others think, so long as we’re right.

These are some of the greatest gifts I’ve ever received. Michael, thank you, I love you, congratulations, and here’s to many more years of tilting at windmills together.

Harold Koh is the Gerard C. and Bernice Latrobe Smith Professor of International Law and Director, Orville H. Schell, Jr. Center for International Human Rights, Yale Law School. Prepared for the National Lawyers Guild New York City Chapter Dinner in Honor of Michael Ratner, March 10, 1995.