Storming the Court: In Defense Of Refugee Rights

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Storming the Court: In Defense Of Refugee Rights

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In Defense Of Refugee Rights

Book Based On Yale Law's Case To Free Haitians From Guantanamo

Courant Staff Writer

October 1 2005

NEW HAVEN -- Yvonne Pascal had been beaten with rifle butts, burned with cigarettes and had miscarried on the floor of a prison cell. A military coup had removed Haiti's first democratically elected president from power and Pascal, a democracy activist, knew she had to flee her homeland or be killed.

It was 1991. She escaped in a boat, but U.S. Coast Guard cutters intercepted the craft and those carrying thousands of other political refugees. Those Haitians were either sent home or granted asylum in the United States, bu
t 300 men, women and children whose lives were deemed to be in danger - including Pascal - were held indefinitely at an American naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. They had tested positive for HIV and were barred from coming to America.

Thousands of miles away, a group of students at Yale Law School, worried about the waves of refugees fleeing Haiti, felt they had to act. Led by their law professor, Harold Hongju Koh, the students sued the U.S. government just before spring break, questioning the government's actions at Guantanamo. Without the aid of cellphones, the Internet, or even legal degrees, the students helped bring the case before the U.S. Supreme Court five times before their clients were ultimately freed.

Their efforts are captured in a new legal thriller, "Storming the Court," which hit bookstores this week. The book's author, Brandt Goldstein, a Yale Law School graduate, appeared at his alma mater Friday, flanked by four characters in his book, including U.S. District Judge Sterl
ing Johnson Jr., a former Marine who once served at Guantanamo. The question that underlies the book resonates sharply today: Do foreigners held at an American military base have any legal rights?

The litigation proved to be a revelation not only for the students but to Johnson, the judge who decided their case. "I was amazed to find how powerful some bureaucrats can be and their impact on the lives of people we don't even know about," he said Friday.

At Yale, Goldstein was immersed in legal issues involving New Haven's homeless and turned down a request to work on the Haiti lawsuit in 1992. But after graduating and working off his student loans at a Washington, D.C., law firm, Goldstein approached Koh about writing a book detailing the David and Goliath struggle.

Koh had always considered the story as gripping as any Hollywood drama - "Erin Brockovich" and "A Civil Action" included. He said OK. But it would take years before Pascal would feel comfortable enough to share all the detai
ls surrounding her torture and exile. Pascal, not her real name, was living in the United States, reunited with her children and wanted to put the past behind.

Several characters are woven through the book. Koh is a young law professor at Yale who teaches a human rights clinic, walks with a limp from a childhood battle with polio and is himself the son of political refugees from Korea. Lisa Daugaard is a brilliant idealist who skipped six grades to start college at 12 and who wins the nickname at Yale of "Lisa Do-Good." Johnson is an African American who grew up in Brooklyn's tough "Bed Stuy" neighborhood, a New York City police officer turned federal prosecutor who was picked for the federal bench in Brooklyn by Republican President George H.W. Bush.

Over six years, Goldstein read through thousands of pages of legal documents and did hundreds of interviews, including one in Koh's minivan, by flashlight, on a long drive from Manchester, N.H., to the professor's home in New Haven.

is book was my own Guantanamo," said Goldstein. "I lost sleep. I lost sense of reality and proportion. My social life went to pieces. It was all I could think about, day and night."

For inspiration, he read Truman Capote's true-crime masterpiece "In Cold Blood" and taped the word "velocity" to the wall: a reminder to ruthlessly cut through legal jargon, foreign policy and other sleeper material. "I wanted the book I wrote to be a work that both the law professors at my alma mater and their secretaries would read," he said.

The book has resurrected thoughts of the past for Koh, now the dean of Yale Law School, who wonders if he'd have the nerve to do it all again. "It brought me back to that time," he said. "I thought we must have been out of our minds."

"What this experience taught me is there is a way - if you care, if you're passionate and watch your resources - there is a way to have an impact on a problem and make a difference."

Koh estimates the law school spent $300,000 wh
ile the New York City law firm Simpson Thacher & Bartlett, which provided major legal help, spent $250,000. Though both the law school and the law firm later recovered their costs, at the time they expected to lose the money, said Koh.

Daugaard, now a public defender in Seattle, said the book captured the nuance in each character's thinking but fell short of conveying the camaraderie that developed among the lawyers. Early on, Koh posted the message "They're an army. We're a family," above the door of his legal clinic office, but that detail is missing from the book. "That was our motto throughout the case," she said.

The Haitians the students helped bring to America have become taxi drivers, musicians and construction workers, says Goldstein, though some have also died. He likes to point out that Pascal, the heroine of his book, has a full-time job and pays for her own health care while her oldest son, a U.S. Marine, just returned from Iraq.
Copyright 2005, Hartford Courant

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