Michael Ratner is an attorney and president of the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) in New York. He served as co-counsel in the landmark Supreme Court case Rasul v. Bush, which challenged the U.S. policy of indefinitely detaining foreign nationals without due process of law. In June 2004 the Court ruled that detainees in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba have the right to challenge their detentions in U.S. courts. Ratner is also a member of the International Advisory Board of Brandeis’s International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life.
Inquiry: You’ve spent the last five years representing Guantanamo Bay detainees, as well as Iraqis who were held and tortured at Abu Ghraib. Despite the 2004 Supreme Court ruling, the Bush administration and now Congress are blocking detainees’ access to the courts. Did you think the fight just to get hearings for your clients would be this hard?
Ratner: Sometimes I feel like Sisyphus, who was condemned to roll a huge rock up a hill, only to have it roll back down every time he reached the top. The fact that in spite of the Supreme Court ruling, Congress passed the Military Commissions Act, which strips the right of habeas corpus [the right to petition the court for unlawful detention] from any noncitizen deemed an “enemy combatant,” is devastating to my clients. But it is hard for me to believe that we won’t prevail in the end.
Inquiry: Does the American public care enough about the violation of these fundamental rights?
Ratner: I think propaganda and fear probably make the general public feel that detainees are dangerous people who don’t deserve any rights. And many people probably don’t care because it’s not happening to them or their neighbors.
Inquiry: How does this impact the U.S. image abroad?
Ratner: When the United States—the preeminent backer of the Geneva Conventions and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—engages in torture, disappearances, and indefinite detentions, the State Department’s annual human-rights reports criticizing other countries become laughable. Even if the United States starts abiding by the Constitution and international law again, countries will point to what the most powerful country in the world did.
Inquiry: Have other administrations engaged in this type of conduct?
Ratner: During the McCarthy period, fundamental rights were destroyed in the name of anticommunism. But I don’t think the government tried to strip the writ of habeas corpus from people, or agreed they could torture, “disappear,” or indefinitely detain people. That is a qualitative shift that sets a precedent for destroying what have been rights since the Magna Carta was written in 1215.
Inquiry: Where did your commitment to social justice originate?
Ratner: My parents were immigrants and there was always a strong feeling in my family about injustice and helping the less fortunate. I got to Brandeis at the height of the civil rights movement and the “ban the bomb” period. The student body was progressive and there was a remarkable faculty. All of that took whatever social interests I had and reinforced them.
Inquiry: When you were a student at Columbia Law School, did you ever imagine you would be suing the president of the United States?
Ratner: When I joined the CCR in 1971, I knew I would be trying cases against the government. But I really envisioned myself representing groups and movements for social change. Unfortunately, I’ve spent most of my time defending much more fundamental rights.