Michael Ratner, who died of cancer on May 11 at the age of 72, spent as much time as he could on Watson Hollow Road in West Shokan.
Born and raised in Cleveland, Ratner came East to earn his B.A. in Medieval English from Brandeis, where he studied with Herbert Marcuse and became friends with Angela Davis. He earned his law degree from Columbia Law School, where he participated in the 1968 protests, and then spent a year clerking for America’s first black female federal judge, Constance Baker Motley. He worked on and off for a number of key NAACP cases up and down the East Coast.
In 1971, Ratner joined the Center for Constitutional Rights, co-founded in 1966 by the famed leftist lawyer William Kunstler, who would later marry Ratner’s first wife, Margaret and introduce him to the Catskills.
Starting off as CCR’s first staff attorney, he eventually became the center’s legal director from 1984 to 1990 and its president from 2002 to 2014. He was also president of the National Lawyers Guild and of the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights, and founded Palestine Legal, which defends protesters on behalf of Palestinian rights. He was also a founding member of the Guantanamo Bay Bar Association, which eventually grew to 500 attorneys who take detainees’ cases pro bono.
Ratner’s first big case at the Center was representing prisoners at Attica Correctional Facility, who sued the prison and state after they were injured in a deadly riot (the case was not successful). In 1982, he filed suit against President Ronald Reagan for U.S. involvement in Nicaragua, then later sued President George H.W. Bush for invading Iraq during the first Gulf War and President Bill Clinton for detaining HIV-positive Haitians at Guantanamo. Over the years, Ratner worked for the normalization of relations with Cuba and for the end of American support to the military dictatorships in Chile and Argentina. served as counsel to Haiti’s first democratically-elected behalf of Guantanamo prisoners’ habeas corpus rights to trials against the administration of George W. Bush, fought New York City’s “stop and frisk” policing policies, and represented Julian Assange of Wikileaks fame.
Michael Ratner had been at the center of some of America and the world’s most wrenching human and constitutional rights fights over his 45 year career, frequently filing suit against the U.S. and other governments, as well as those personally responsible for torture, intimidation, and injustice. Those in his profession spoke of him having no fear of failure or loss, quoting how he once said that the best cases were filed “100 percent on principle,” as he told his colleague David Cole of the reasoning behind the Guantanamo habeas corpus case. “He sued some of the most powerful people in the world on behalf of some of the least,” Cole told the New York Law Journal in an obituary run this past weekend.
Ratner leaves behind his wife, Karen Ranucci, his children Jake and Ana, a brother, Bruce, and a sister, Ellen.
“As all who knew him locally came to know, he loved his family, our towns and region, as well as all the trout in our streams,” said Brian Powers, who published the now defunct Phoenicia Times and Olive Press. “He also loved the burgers at the Boiceville Inn.”