Ratner for the Defense: the Legacy of a Lefty Lawyer

The name Michael Ratner ought to be familiar to readers of CounterPunch. After all, between 2001 and 2012 he wrote seven articles, all them with provocative titles for the publication you are now reading. The first article was titled “No time for Cowboy Politics.” The last one “Breaking Private Manning.” In my favorite piece, from 2006 Ratner alleges that “Donald Rumsfeld committed war crimes.”  Shortly after Ratner died in 2016, Australian professor of law, Binoy Kampmark, wrote a tribute to him that also appeared in CounterPunch. Kampmark noted that in 2004, Ratner “did what many thought impossible: convinced justices of the U.S. Supreme Court that foreign detainees (2 Australians and 12 Kuwaitis) held at Guantánamo were entitled to habeas corpus.” Kampmark added, “Ratner’s unconditional advocacy helped nurture a diligent army, and forged a relentless generation of vigilant human rights scrutinizers.”

American Lawyer David Cole, one of Ratner’s most diligent protégées, explained in an article titled “Michael Ratner’s Army” that “it says much about…his legacy that so many of the nearly eight hundred prisoners once housed at Guantánamo have been released, and that those remaining have forceful and dedicated advocates working on their behalf.” The National Legal Director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Cole noted that while Bush and Obama deserve some recognition for the release of detainees, most of the credit belongs to “the hundreds of lawyers and thousands of activists” who advocated for the Guantánamo inmates. Cole added that many of these same lawyers and activists owe much of their inspiration to “one man: the human rights attorney Michael Ratner.”

I suppose I was one of those inspired activists. In 1991 I joined a lawsuit charging Bush, Cheney and Powell with censoring the news about the war in the Persian Gulf,  and specifically the use of “press pools.” At the time I said, “This is a violation of constitutional guarantees.“ I added “It’s the first time in American history that journalists have been prevented from reporting freely about a major war.” That probably wasn’t true, but it sounded good and felt good to say it.

Lawyers and activists, along with citizens concerned with civil rights and civil liberties, can be inspired all over again by Ratner’s autobiography, Moving the Bar: My life as a Radical Lawyer (OR Books, $23) that portrays some of his more colorful clients, including Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning.

It seems unlikely that Ratner would claim as much credit as Cole throws his way. Indeed, he was always a team player who was well aware of the lawyers who preceded him, showed him the way forward and inspired him.

Ratner belonged to a generation of lawyers who came of age in the late 1960s and the early 1970s and who were shaped by the political and cultural upheavals of the era. These lefty lawyers also helped to shape protest and to amplify the voices of their clients, especially when they were in jail. Sometimes white lawyers seemed to be in the driver’s seat while Black defendants were stalled behind bars.

In 1971, when Ratner was a newly minted law school graduate, Jonathan Black edited and published Radical Lawyers. Black’s book includes essays by Arthur Kinoy, William Kunstler, Gerald Lefcourt, Charles R. Gary, Beverley Axelrod, Michael E. Tigar, Henry de Suvero, Kenneth Cloke, Florynce R. Kennedy, Howard More and others. In 1971, if you weren’t a radical lawyer the next best thing was to be on trial in a courtroom defended by a radical lawyer.

Black’s paperback doesn’t include all the lefty lawyers in the U.S. in the early 1970s. There are no essays by Dennis Roberts, Leonard Weinglass or Bernardine Dohrn who graduated from the University of Chicago Law School in 1967 and who chose to be a Weather woman rather than a lawyer. Sometimes it was challenging to tell the lawyers from the rioters and the rioters from the lawyers.

Alas, Black included no essay by Michael Ratner, the brother of multi-millionaire and real estate developer, Bruce Ratner. One wonders what Michael was thinking about the law in the late 1960s and where he was on the trajectory that took him from liberal law student to radical lawyer. Michael died in 2016 of complications from cancer. That same year, his brother Bruce established the Center for Early Detection of Cancer in memory of Michael.

I met Michael and got to know him when he was a law student at Columbia. I played a minor part in his life, though he mentions me by name, and provides a description of an incident that brought me notoriety. A law student named Gustin Reichbach was on trial, charged by the powers-that-be at Columbia for various acts of defiance. Michael was one of Gus’ lawyers, and so was Eleanor Raskin, who was my wife at the time and who would soon leave the law school and live underground for about a decade.

Ratner describes a conversation between him and Eleanor and adds, “There followed one of the greatest scenes ever to grace the law school. Jonah vaulted over the wall in front of the podium and onto the judge’s table. He proceeded to kick all of the judge’s papers off the table and onto the floor.” True enough. What he doesn’t say is that I was arrested for that unrehearsed act, jailed in the Tombs, put on trial, found guilty of various misdemeanors, including attempted petty larceny and sentenced to five months at Rikers, the New York hell hole jail. My lawyer, Gerald Lefcourt, approached the bench and asked, “Your honor can we have a cash alternative.” The judge replied “$500.” So I walked.

Lefcourt continued to practice law. Gus passed the bar character committee and went on to become a lawyer and then a judge in Brooklyn who made the front page of the New York Daily News when his bailiffs, acting on his orders, handed out condoms to prostitutes who had been arrested and were on trial. Eleanor became a lawyer and an administrative law judge. Bernardine Dorhn became a professor of the law.

It’s striking to me how many Sixties, Seventies radicals became lawyers. I’m thinking of Dana Biberman and her sister Nancy, Nancy’s husband Roger, plus Michael Siegel and Peter Clapp. Abbie Hoffman never became a lawyer, but near the height of his career as a Yippie and a cultural revolutionary he had no less than six lawyers. I only had four, in addition to Lefcourt and Reichbach.

My favorite lawyer was probably Michael Kennedy who told me once when I was uncertain about the legality or illegality of something I wanted to do, “You tell me what you want to do and I’ll make it legal.” Bill Kunstler was always in my corner. Once, when I didn’t have a car and needed one, he lent me the Lincoln Continental his underworld clients had given him so he could drive from New York to Newport to defend them in court. Another time, after I interviewed Bill for my book about Abbie, he invited me for dinner with his whole family, including Margie, Michael’s ex-wife.

Reading Ratner’s Moving the Bar shows just how unusual he was in the crowded room of radical lawyers. Money and fame don’t seem to have mattered to him. Also, he overcame his own insecurities and fears and fought for his clients fearlessly. Year after year, decade after decade, he battled with his brains, his briefs and his bravado. As he explains, he didn’t always win, but even when he didn’t win he won something valuable.

Ratner took on some of the biggest and most ruthless powers-that-be in the land, including Bush II, who aimed to abolish civil rights and civil liberties and do away with habeas corpus. My blood is still boiling. My flesh is still roiling. I once wrote a poem about Bush II that’s titled “The Dictatorship of the Cowboy Class,” which includes the sarcastic lines, “Lick his boots/ kiss his Texas Ass/and strip search me.”

In the chapter titled “In the Center of the Seventies,” Ratner lays out his revolutionary strategy: “Take the offensive, use the law, work with the grassroots, change the dynamics of struggle.” He adds, “Be as radical as reality itself.” Of course, he wasn’t alone. He had the Center for Constitutional Rights in front of him, behind him and at his side. He had the example of Bill Kunstler before him, and he had co-council when he went to court.

He also had the backing and the encouragement of his brother Bruce, his first wife, Margie Ratner, a tenacious lawyer, and his second wife, Karen Ranucci, an investigative reporter, videographer and the mother of their children. For my money, Margie has one of the best lines in Michael’s autobiography. When he asks her “Where can I do the most good for the left?” she replies, “Enough already. You are not that important. Get a job already.” That’s when he made the fateful, life-altering decision to go to work at the Center for Constitutional Rights.

Perhaps Margie said what she did because she didn’t want to feed Michael’s ego. Also, she was right, as he recognized. He needed to get a job. But she was also wrong. Michael was that important, or at least he soon would be, as Moving the Bar shows. He was super important, especially when other radical lawyers fell by the wayside, and opted for money, fame and notoriety. There may never be a full and complete explanation of why Michael had the endurance and the resilience of a long-distance lawyer. Still, his autobiography provides as much of an honest account as we are likely to get until and unless someone writes his biography.

Michael describes his own marriages and personal relationships, though Moving the Bar is not about “lawyers in love.” That’s the title of a Jackson Browne song from 1983 that might have been inspired by the life and the legend of Michael Ratner, Esquire, a no bull shit guy who embodied Che Guevara’s notion that “the true revolutionary is guided by strong feelings of love.”

Michael loved the detainees at Guantanamo, the prisoners at Abu Ghraib, the inmates at Attica, the victims of war crimes, and the refugees from civil wars.

Moving the Bar offers a vivid chronicle of radical movements in the U.S. from 1960 to 2016. Law students today might read it and learn how and why a young man from a Jewish family in Cleveland, who grew up identifying with the state of Israel, came to respect the Palestinians who wanted to live in peace in their own homeland.

Michael, you carried on the tradition of Clarence Darrow and the lawyers who defended striking American workers, Communists indicted under the Smith Act, Blacks who defied the southern American system of apartheid and the women suffragettes who were arrested because they demanded the right to vote.

Radical lawyers have shown us the way forward, kept us out of prison, and helped to protect us from persecution and the long arm of the state. I don’t regret not going to law school and becoming a lawyer, though my father was a lawyer and so were my wives. I’m proud to have known Michael when he and Gus and Eleanor and Margie and me and hundreds of students shook the walls of Columbia Law School for an afternoon.

Jonah Raskin is the author of Beat Blues, San Francisco, 1955.