The status of detainees at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba has been making headlines in recent weeks,and not for the first time. While the treatment of accused terrorists is currently at issue, more than a decade ago, official policies towards Haitian refugees came under fire, and inspired a legal case with implications that remain relevant today.
Lawyer and writer Brandt Goldstein tells the story of that case in his book Storming the Court: How a Band of Yale Law Students Sued the President-And Won (Scribner).
The events that inspired Brandt Goldstein's book date back to the early 1990s, when thousands of Haitians fled political turmoil in their country, crowding into rickety boats bound for U.S. shores. Many were intercepted by the U.S. Coast Guard and sent to the Guantanamo naval base. Most were either granted asylum or returned to Haiti.
But some 300 refugees, who were infected with HIV, remained in quarantine at the base. Hearing of the Haitians' plight, a group of Yale Law students filed suit in 1992, claiming the refugees were being denied the right to legal counsel.
Brandt Goldstein was finishing his third year at Yale Law School at the time, and says he witnessed the drama unfold. "I knew something exciting was going on, because I would see my classmates running down the halls, pasty faced, dark circles under their eyes, with legal research trailing behind them," he recalls. "The next day something about the case would be there in the New York Times."
Based on six years of research, Storming the Court recounts a lawsuit that extended from the administration of George H.W. Bush into the first term of Bill Clinton. It was an outrageous undertaking that seemed doomed to fail.
Brandt Goldstein says that even Harold Koh, the Yale Law professor who helped argue their case in court, was initially reluctant to get involved. "His reaction was, this is crazy. You want to take on the United States Department of Justice, which is the biggest litigation machine in the world, with thousands of lawyers, endless resources and a client in the form of the White House that's never going to yield?" he recalls. "You want to take on the United States Coast Guard operation in the Caribbean, challenge what's happening at a naval base 1,500 miles away, and your clients are being held incommunicado and speak a language, Creole, that you don't know!"
One of the students, case manager Ray Brescia, says he didn't really EXPECT to win. "At least for me personally, I thought we were using the law to expose the situation, to potentially change hearts and minds about the issue," he says. "When the case started out, we were fighting for the right to meet with the Haitians on Guantanamo, and the case morphed into something different from that, really about bringing those people--who deserved not to be forced back to Haiti because they feared persecution there--to the United States."
Author Brandt Goldstein tells his story from shifting viewpoints--that of Professor Harold Koh, himself the son of a political refugee from South Korea; of refugee Yvonne Pascal, a Haitian political activist; of government attorneys, who claimed U.S. legal rights didn't apply on a naval base located outside U.S. borders; and of the students themselves, whose lives became a round of frantic deadlines, surprise rulings, disappointing setbacks, and finally, a victory.
Brandt Goldstein believes the ultimate turning point came "when a government attorney stood up and told the judge that the government has no contrary evidence to the Yale position that the Haitians are not getting proper medical care. 'But we're not going to let them into the country anyway,' he said," the author says. "The judge told me that that was the last straw, that in his view the Constitution applied on Guantanamo, because we control it, and that the due process clause more or less says if you hold people in detention, they deserve proper medical care."
If that exchange helped win the case for the Yale students, Ray Brescia says their inexperience may have worked in their favor as well. "We were willing to take risks and look at things a little differently perhaps than seasoned lawyers might have," she says. "We looked at every case they cited backwards, upside down, and not just accepting on faith what the Justice Department lawyers said they meant."
As a result of the judge's ruling, the Haitians were released from Guantanamo and launched on new lives in the United States. The students lost a second case in the Supreme Court, where judges upheld the President's right to turn back refugees intercepted at sea. While it was not a total win, Brandt Goldstein believes the Yale suit turned the spotlight on issues still being debated today about executive privilege, the rights of non-American citizens, and the reach of the U.S. judicial system.
"This was not a Democratic or a Republican issue," says Brandt Goldstein. "Both the first Bush administration and the Clinton administration were responsible for running this detention camp on Guantanamo 12 years ago. I think one of the great things about the U.S. government structure is there are three parts to it: there's Congress, there's the President and there are the courts. And the story of my book is in part how the law students and law professor and human rights lawyers said the Constitution is paramount. And while we all have a role here, the President cannot do what he or she wants."
The students made huge sacrifices to pursue their case, traveling to New York, Florida and Guantanamo when they should have been studying and looking for jobs. But Ray Brescia says it was all worth it. Now the project director at the Urban Justice Center in New York, he represented Yvonne Pascal in her successful effort to win permanent residency in the United States.
"She has since set down very strong roots," Mr. Brescia says. "She's a home health attendant. She has a son in the Marines who just got back from Iraq. So to me that personal connection is the most gratifying, that someone like that was able to come into the United States through the work the legal team did, and she's been able to give back in immeasurable ways."
Other veterans of the Yale Law School suit moved on to do everything from public defense law in Seattle to advocating against child labor in Nepal-combining an early lesson in how legal battles are waged in the United States with an ongoing commitment to social justice.