Moving the Bar



With an Introduction by MICHAEL SMITH

“A beautiful and compelling account from one of the leaders of the legal left... Ratner showed that one can indeed be both a radical and a lawyer—by acting 'one hundred percent on principle,' and by using the law on behalf of the vulnerable to hold the powerful to account.”
—David Cole, The Nation

“If you care as deeply and passionately as Michael Ratner, the suffering of the oppressed forces you to become a radical.” —Chris Hedges

“He was fearless. He was outraged by outrageous things. He was inventive when the law stopped short of providing justice. And working with Michael let you experience the exhilaration of taking the law to places where it had never been.”
—Peter Weiss, former vice-president of the Center for Constitutional Rights

“Driven by love and compassion, Michael Ratner was the most tenacious and brilliant of lawyers”
—Amy Goodman

“A fascinating read that covers much radical U.S. history.” —Ajamu Baraka

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About the Book

Michael Ratner (1943–2016) was one of America’s leading human rights lawyers. He worked for more than four decades at the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) becoming first the Director of Litigation and then the President of what Alexander Cockburn called “a small band of tigerish people.” He was also the President of the National Lawyers Guild.

Ratner handled some of the most significant cases In American history. This book tells why and how he did it.

His last case, which he worked on until he died, was representing truth-telling whistleblower and now political prisoner Julian Assange, the editor of WikiLeaks.

Ratner “moved the bar” by organizing some 600 lawyers to successfully defend habeas corpus, that is, the ancient right of someone accused of a crime to have a lawyer and to be brought before a judge.

Michael had a piece of paper taped on the wall next to his desk at the CCR. It read:

4 key principles of being a radical lawyer:

1. Do not refuse to take a case just because it is long odds of winning in court.
2. Use cases to publicize a radical critique of US policy and to promote revolutionary transformation.
3. Combine legal work with political advocacy.
4. Love people.

Compelling and instructive, Moving the Bar is an indispensable manual for the next generation of activists and their lawyers.

366 pages • Paperback ISBN 978-1-68219-309-9 • E-book ISBN 978-1-68219-250-4


About the Author

Michael Ratner (1943-2016) was a New York-based civil rights attorney and a lifelong socialist. He was president of the National Lawyers Guild and the Center for Constitutional Rights and the author of several books including The Trial of Donald Rumsfeld: A Prosecution by Book, Against War with Iraq, Guantanamo: What the World Should Know, and (with Michael Smith) Who Killed Che?: How the CIA Got Away With Murder.


Read an Excerpt

Shortly after the release of the Iraq War Logs, Len Weinglass and I were finally able to arrange our meeting with Assange. We met him in Marylebone in central London at a studio apartment that belonged to Jennifer Robinson, one of his lawyers who was away at the time.

WikiLeaks had no physical office. It existed only in cyberspace. Nor did Assange have a permanent residence. He was living the same kind of nomadic life that he’d led as a teenager in Australia, moving from city to city, apartment to apartment.

Len struggled as we trudged up to the top floor of the five-floor walkup. Joseph Farrell opened the door, and that is when I got my first in-person look at Julian Assange, who greeted us warmly. Tall and slender, he had longish white hair that reminded me of Andy Warhol. He wore slacks and a plain shirt that Farrell had bought him after the suitcase with all his clothes had been lost on his recent flight from Stockholm.

With Julian was his close adviser Sarah Harrison, a 28-year-old, sandy-haired British journalist who, along with Farrell, had left London’s Bureau of Investigative Journalism earlier that year to join WikiLeaks. Julian’s British solicitor, Mark Stephens, a frizzy-haired middle-aged man dressed in a striped suit with a broad flashy tie, also joined us.

Perhaps a bit suspicious of American lawyers intruding on his turf, Stephens explained that Julian already had lawyers in Sweden dealing with the allegations there, and he was handling the legal situation in England, along with Jennifer Robinson and the Australia-born barrister Geoffrey Robertson.

“We consider the Swedish allegations a distraction,” I said. “We’ve read the police reports, and we believe the authorities don’t have a case. We’re here because in our view you are in much more jeopardy in the U.S. Len can explain why.”

Julian said nothing and turned to Len.

“WikiLeaks and you personally are facing a battle that is both legal and political,” said Len in his quiet, deliberate way. “As we learned in the Pentagon Papers case, the U.S. government doesn’t like the truth coming out. And it doesn’t like to be humiliated. No matter if it’s Nixon or Bush or Obama, Republican or Democrat in the White House. The U.S. government will try to stop you from publishing its ugly secrets. And if they have to destroy you and the First Amendment and the rights of publishers with you, they are willing to do it. We believe they are going to come after WikiLeaks and you, Julian, as the publisher.”

“Come after me for what?” asked Julian.

“Espionage. They’re going to charge Bradley Manning with treason under the Espionage Act of 1917. We don’t think it applies to him because he’s a whistleblower, not a spy. And we don’t think it applies to you either because you are a publisher. But they are going to try to force Manning into implicating you as his collaborator. That’s why it’s crucial that WikiLeaks and you personally have an American criminal lawyer to represent you.”

Julian listened carefully as we laid out possible scenarios. “The way it could happen,” I said, “is that the Justice Department could convene a secret grand jury to investigate possible charges against you. It would probably be in northern Virginia, where everyone on the jury would be a current or retired CIA employee or have worked for some other part of the military-industrial complex. They would be hostile to anyone like you who’d published U.S. government secrets. The grand jury could come up with a sealed indictment, issue a warrant for your arrest, and request extradition.”

“What happens if they extradite me?” asked Julian.

Len looked at him and said, “They fly you to where the indictment is issued. Then they put you into some hellhole in solitary, and you get treated like Bradley Manning. They put you under what they call special administrative measures, which means you probably would not be allowed communication with anyone. Maybe your lawyer could go in and talk to you, but the lawyer couldn’t say anything to the press.”

“And it’s very, very unlikely that they would give you bail,” I added.

“Is it easier to extradite from the U.K. or from Sweden?” asked Sarah Harrison.

“We don’t know the answer to that,” I replied. “My guess is that you would probably have the most support and the best legal team in a bigger country like the U.K. In a smaller country like Sweden, the U.S. can use its power to pressure the government, so it would be easier to extradite you from there. But we need to consult with a lawyer who specializes in extradition.”

Stephens looked skeptical. “You know that Julian has already offered to go to Sweden to answer the special prosecutor’s questions,” he said.

“I don’t think that’s wise,” Len said, “unless the Swedish government guarantees that Julian will not be extradited to another country because of his publishing work.”

“The problem is that Sweden doesn’t have bail,” I explained. “If they put you in jail in Stockholm and the U.S. pressures the government to extradite you, Sweden might send you immediately to the U.S. and you’d never see the light of day again. It’s far less risky to ask the Swedish prosecutor to question you in London.”

Julian looked thoughtful, taking it all in. Reserved and controlled, he didn’t show much emotion. But it was clear that he understood everything we’d said and seemed to trust us.

We all agreed that for the time being Julian should not go to Sweden. He would stay in the U.K., and we would continue to work together. Len and I volunteered to represent WikiLeaks and Julian pro bono in the U.S. with the support of CCR, and Julian accepted the offer.

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