By Charlie Savage
More than 80 volunteer lawyers for Guantanamo Bay detainees today endorsed Illinois Senator Barack Obama's presidential bid.
The attorneys said in a joint statement that they believed Obama was the best choice to roll back the Bush-Cheney administration's detention policies in the war on terrorism and thereby to "restore the rule of law, demonstrate our commitment to human rights, and repair our reputation in the world community." The attorneys are representing the detainees in habeas corpus lawsuits, which are efforts to get individual hearings before federal judges in order to challenge the basis for their indefinite imprisonment without trial.
The attorneys praised Obama for being a leader in an unsuccessful fight in the fall of 2006 to block Congress from enacting a law stripping courts of jurisdiction to hear Guantanamo detainee lawsuits. The constitutionality of that law, which was part of the Military Commissions Act, is now being challenged before the Supreme Court in one of the most closely-watched cases this term.
"When we were walking the halls of the Capitol trying to win over enough Senators to beat back the Administration's bill, Senator Obama made his key staffers and even his offices available to help us," they wrote. "Senator Obama worked with us to count the votes, and he personally lobbied colleagues who worried about the political ramifications of voting to preserve habeas corpus for the men held at Guantanamo. He has understood that our strength as a nation stems from our commitment to our core values, and that we are strong enough to protect both our security and those values. Senator Obama demonstrated real leadership then and since, continuing to raise Guantanamo and habeas corpus in his speeches and in the debates."
The attorneys did not say why they sided with Obama over his chief rival, New York Senator Hillary Clinton. Like Obama, Clinton too opposed the Military Commissions Act, arguing during the Senate debate that a major flaw of the bill was its provision stripping habeas corpus rights for non-citizens named by the president as "enemy combatants."
"This bill would not only deny detainees habeas corpus rights – a process that would allow them to challenge the very validity of their confinement – it would also deny these rights to lawful immigrants living in the United States," Clinton said in September 2006. "If enacted, this law would give license to this Administration to pick people up off the streets of the United States and hold them indefinitely without charges and without legal recourse."
The Gitmo attorneys contrasted Obama's record during the fight over the Military Commissions Act with that of "some politicians," whom they did not name but accused of being "all talk and no action" and who, they said, "stood back" while Obama took a more active role amid the controversy. Chicago lawyer Gary Isaac, who helped draft the statement, said that this wording was intended not to be a jab at Clinton. Rather, he said, it is "really intended to respond to the contention that Senator Obama is all talk and no action. We wanted to share our experience where he was a leader on an issue of great importance to us."
Several Boston lawyers were among the signatories to the endorsement statement, including P. Sabin Willett, Stephen H. Oleskey, Jason Pinney, and Neil McGaraghan. Other names on the list included Washington lawyer Thomas Wilner, retired federal appeals court judge John Gibbons, Center for Constitutional Rights president Michael Ratner, and retired Rear Admiral Donald Guter, who was the Navy's top JAG officer from 2000 to 2002 and who is now the dean of the Duquesne University School of Law in Pittsburgh.