Michael Ratner – President, Center for Constitutional Rights
At a young age, Michael Rattler decided there were more important things in life than a big salary and making partner. Through his work at the Center for Constitutional Rights, he has used his legal education to help others and protect basic civil rights, and it has led to the kind of job satisfaction that is often missing for attorneys.
During the Columbia University riots in 1968, Michael Ratner was picked up “like a matchstick” by a “beefy, longshoremen type” police officer and thrown to the ground. Ratner says that bloody event changed his life, causing him to dedicate his career to civil rights.
“I never went back,” Ratner told LawCrossing. “Instead of really taking a job which I had for the next year at a liberal Democratic big firm named Arnold and Porter in Washington, I decided to really devote my life to civil rights essentially right there.”
Almost four decades later, the president of the Center for Constitutional Rights is still at it, litigating rights cases around the world, including Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib in Iraq.
Ratner had taken a year off from law school in 1968 to work on a school segregation case in Baltimore for the Legal Defense Fund. Martin Luther King was killed and the city erupted in protests. When he returned to New York, students had taken over Columbia University to protest the treatment of black students and he joined in.
Those events plus the trial of the Chicago Seven, the Black Panthers and other political events shaped the lives of all the students at Columbia during that time, he says.
“The war in Vietnam was beginning to reach a height in terms of drafting. It was 1968, you had Martin Luther King killed; you had JFK killed that same year,” he said. “The world was changing and it was the shift–it was really the shift not just politically, things like Vietnam and the South, but my law school started with 15 women in the class and now it’s more than 50 percent.
So the shift was going on in terms of race, in terms of women, in terms of our social values and not just our political values. It was my friends who were at that law school with me. Many of us have remained true to some sort of social good or social transformation, whether it’s through Legal Aid or a variety of things with some sort of public good.”
Ratner believes young lawyers today are living through a similar time of dramatic shifts, particularly in the rule of law and what he considers abuses of executive power since Sept. 11. But now young attorneys are often too deep in debt to follow their hearts or political consciences.
“I made $12,000 when I clerked for a judge when a good law school starting salary for a firm may have been $18,000. It wasn’t like today when it’s $180,000 coming out of New York,” he said. “Leaving law school with $100,000 in debt. It’s a pretty big problem.”
But there are so many new opportunities for lawyers in small firms, like immigration law and welfare law.
“The problem is I hear terrible stories about most lawyers who go into big firms, they really don’t like it. They’re working 70 hours a week. So, fine, you can get your kids a new tricycle, but you never see your kids. I just think there are options. When I left law school, that was the time after the Watts riots when they set up legal services. You had a huge number of jobs opening up. Now there’s much less money. You don’t have that option as clearly.
I think one option is to avoid big firms. There are many smaller firms that do civil rights, Title VII, Title IX, women’s discrimination, race discrimination. You’re not going to make a million dollars a year, but you’re going to make a decent living. And you’re going to get a good experience. I do think people going into Legal Aid for a couple of years or for people who want to be prosecutors, which I never wanted to be, those are really good experiences. My recommendation is people should get into court right away and not worry so much about high fallutin’ jobs for the first couple of years. You can always get the high fallutin’ jobs.”
When Ratner finished law school, he spent a fulfilling year clerking for Constance Baker Motley, the first Black woman federal judge. When his year was up, he began weighing his options. Ruth Bader Ginsburg offered him a teaching position at Rutgers. Rabinowitz, Boudin and Standard offered him a job in their firm.
He chose the Center for Constitutional Rights.
“Because I really at that point wanted a more progressive place that was really going to be in the middle of the thick of the political movements of the time and the major issues.”
He had left the Center briefly during the 1970s: to open his own practice and then to teach at Yale. But he returned.
“I decided I liked having the backup of the Center and I like doing only political cases and not having to charge my clients, which wasn’t my favorite thing to do, particularly when they were poor.
I look at the major civil rights issues and political issues and I really wind up litigating those. So if you look at my life historically, it was certainly in the eighties I did eight years of nothing but Central America and FBI spying here. I litigated 14 cases around US government intervention in Central America, killing, murder, all kinds of human rights cases, going after the FBI here. In the nineties, I represented the Haitian refugees at Guantanamo while I was teaching at Yale. Then in this generation, post-9/11, that’s where I would have to say all my work has come together.”
Ratner feels there’s still much to be done and blames George W. Bush for abusing his executive power.
On Nov. 13, 2001 the president came down with Military Order Number 1, which is the one that allows the tribunals and also executive detention–you know, you can detain anybody the president designated as an alleged international terrorist. That’s when I just decided this is it. This was a military order in the middle of this terrorist attack and the president can’t be taking that kind of executive power.
Ratner believes young lawyers have an obligation to defend people who are locked up without charge or trial in places like Guantanamo, Bagram in Afghanistan and in Iraq. Although he says he abhors the Taliban and fundamental religions, he feels fundamental rights are involved and is committed to defending detainees–despite often receiving hate mail and even death threats.
“If we’re not a country of laws, what are we? When I look at what happened at Abu Ghraib, [the U.S. soldiers who allegedly abused Iraqi prisoners] are no worse than me or other people. What happens is when you lift the lid of conduct from what prohibits things, people go back to their instincts. They really do. Primitive instincts. Law is what stands between us and Abu Ghraib and the idea that the executive in this country was willing to dispense with it so freely and easily, it’s really put at their doorstep what happened in Abu Ghraib.”
Ratner, who has two children and is married to a businesswoman and producer of the Democracy Now news program, says young lawyers now are much more well-informed and worldly, which he thinks will be good for civil rights. The secret to being a good attorney, he says, is finding an area of law you’re passionate about and not worrying too much about making partner.
At 61, he says he “feels like a kid, because I love what I do.”