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Michael Smith and Zachary Sklar: Michael Ratner Was a Revolutionary Lawyer Like No Other

The late human rights lawyer took on some of the most important cases of our time, including defending Guantanamo Bay detainees and representing WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.
Michael Ratner, President of the Center for Constitutional Rights, in front of the US Supreme Court in Washington DC, 11th January 2006.
Michael Ratner, President of the Center for Constitutional Rights, in front of the US Supreme Court in Washington DC, 11th January 2006. [Photo by Jonathan McIntosh]

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When Michael Ratner died in 2016, the world lost one of the great human rights lawyers of the past century. A descendant of holocaust survivors, Ratner embodied the courage and integrity that is often sorely lacking among his peers in the legal field, taking on cases that seemed impossible to win, but were always essential to protecting human rights. He served as president of the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) as well as the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR), and spent much of his life advocating for the protection of civil liberties and civil rights. 

One of his greatest achievements was winning the case Rasul v. Bush, which set the legal precedent for hundreds of detainees held in Guantanamo Bay to be able challenge their detention in U.S. courts. Before his death, he was one of the attorneys defending WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange—who is currently being held in solitary confinement in a high-security prison in the United Kingdom fighting extradition to the U.S.

In a new, posthumously published book, “Moving the Bar: My Life as a Radical Lawyer,” readers are able to learn from Ratner’s life and words about how and why he took on the critical cases he did. Fellow attorney Michael Smith and former executive editor at The Nation Zachary Sklar join Robert Scheer on this week’s “Scheer Intelligence” to talk about their late friend Michael Ratner. Sklar, who edited “Moving the Bar” for OR Books, and Smith, who wrote the book’s introduction, discuss Ratner’s most significant cases, including what he would think of how Assange is being treated today, and also offer insight into Ratner’s unwavering dedication to ethics.  

“Michael thought that the law was in fundamental essence ‘nothing more than a method of social control created by a socioeconomic system’–and by that he meant corporate capitalism—’determined at all costs to perpetuate itself by any means necessary for as long as possible,’” says Smith. 

Smith and Sklar go on to list what their friend considered the “four key principles of being a radical lawyer,” which Ratner had taped to a wall in his office. They read: 

1. Do not refuse to take a case just because it has 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.

Listen to the full discussion between Smith, Sklar, and Scheer as they reflect on Ratner’s legacy and the need for more lawyers to follow in his revolutionary footsteps.

Credits: 

Host:
Robert Scheer

Producer:
Joshua Scheer

Introduction:
Natasha Hakimi Zapata 

Transcript: Lucy Berbeo

RS: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence, where the intelligence comes from my guests. In this case, I have two of them. And we’re here to talk about a really great lawyer, Michael Ratner, who passed away I guess five years ago. And these fellows—Michael Smith had worked with him; he is himself an attorney. And Zachary Sklar was an editor at OR Publishers, that published Michael Ratner’s book. It’s called Moving the Bar: My Life as a Radical Lawyer. 

And this is a man, Michael Ratner, who was Julian Assange’s principal lawyer. He convened lawyers, he did many things in his life, and we’ll talk about him. He was very important in exposing the conditions at Guantanamo, and a legendary lawyer. But I want to begin with the first part of the book, where you guys discuss Julian Assange’s case. And I must say, I do not understand why the very newspapers that published the information that Julian Assange, WikiLeaks uncovered—the New York Times, Der Spiegel, The Guardian, The Washington Post, you could go down a list of the who’s who of media—are not making more of an issue as Julian Assange is in effect being in conditions that are torturous in England. 

And there was a break in the case for some optimism: the supreme court in England is now considering whether the U.S. government informed the British courts in real time of whether they were going to, when they managed to extradite Julian Assange, put him into prison conditions in which he wouldn’t be able to speak to anyone. He would, you know—horrible, horrible conditions, which they had some for Chelsea Manning, his principal source. 

So I want to begin with that. And in your book, you describe Michael Ratner’s initial meeting with Julian Assange, and he went over there with an even more famous, I dare say, lawyer, Lenny Weinglass, who also passed away—the lawyer, one of the two principal lawyers in the Pentagon Papers case. And they were there with a bunch of lawyers, English lawyers and others. And they explained to Julian Assange that what they were concerned about was that the U.S. government would use its full might, and if they could get ahold of this guy, accuse him of everything—espionage and what have you, the things they’ve done to Chelsea Manning to get her to testify against him. 

So why don’t we begin with that scene in your book, which I found compelling? And identify yourselves, since I have two guests, when you speak, OK? Let’s take it.

ZS: Yeah, this is Zach Sklar speaking. That scene was reconstructed, because that part of the book was written after Michael had died. And I reconstructed that scene from the eyewitnesses who were there, Joseph Farrell and Sarah, I forget her last name. And they told me exactly what had happened. Michael had also written an account of his contact with Assange, and so some of that was used as well. They warned him that the U.S. government was going to do to him exactly what they had been doing to Chelsea Manning, and that they were going to use Chelsea Manning to finger him, essentially—to say that he had collaborated with Chelsea in revealing these—well, it was the Afghan war logs and the Iraq war logs that were the principal things that they were worried about coming out. 

And that’s what happened; that’s exactly what has happened since. Michael warned about it, and Len Weinglass warned Julian at the time that that was what would happen. Julian didn’t really know at the time how powerful the response would be from the U.S. government, which doesn’t like to have its secrets revealed. And he, more than almost anyone, has revealed more of those secrets than anyone else.

RS: Yeah, and the real issue here is, is Julian Assange, a publisher—is he deserving of free press support, or free speech support as a citizen. And the irony here is, here is the U.S. government, is making a claim about an Australian citizen, right, who’s in England, and they’re saying we have the right to extradite you and bring you to the United States because you embarrassed the U.S. government by revealing its war crimes. This is what really this issue is all about. Julian Assange revealed very serious war crimes on the part of the U.S. government. I don’t think anybody can look at what was published—and in fact, the New York Times, the Washington Post, Der Spiegel, The Guardian, all published these stories, because they were important stories. 

And Julian Assange is actually, as Daniel Ellsberg has pointed out, in a much stronger position than Ellsberg was in the Pentagon Papers case, which obviously Leonard Weinglass had worked out, because Julian Assange is in the position of a publisher. He’s not somebody who had taken an oath of loyalty, as Ellsberg had when he worked in the Pentagon, or even when he was at the RAND Corporation. So let’s talk about that. That the—and this is now the Biden administration. And just as it was the Obama administration that used the Espionage Act more than all previous presidents. 

We have this fantasy that all evil somehow was located with Donald Trump—well, we’ve now had this great Democratic Party victory. And one of the reasons that these people have a vengeance against Julian Assange, he also showed that the leadership of the Democratic Party, with the WikiLeaks revelation, was out to first of all eliminate Bernie Sanders as a threat electorally. And that he showed that Hillary Clinton had met with the big hot-shots at Goldman Sachs and others on Wall Street, and said she was going to bring them to Washington to straighten out the economy, the very people who had come as close to wrecking the economy as anyone since President Hoover. And so the Democratic Party has a particular animus towards Julian Assange.

So let’s talk about that. Why is Julian Assange sitting in this prison? And what is the issue now with the supreme court of England? Because they’re, this all goes to the U.S. trying to not just grab Julian Assange, but really put him into a prison situation, which would be horrendous. 

MS: Well, it’s horrendous now, Bob. He’s been in Belmarsh Prison, a notorious prison—

RS: Who is speaking? You’ve got to identify yourself. This is like the [unclear] show, you know, three older guys. But let’s play by those rules. So who’s speaking?

MS: This is Michael Smith, Bob. Julian has spent over a thousand days in the notorious Belmarsh Prison in London. Ripped out of the Ecuadorian embassy, where he had gotten political asylum, and put in the prison. They won’t let him go because they’ve got him right where they want him. He’s been silenced. He’s been silenced pretty much now for 10 years. Remember, when he revealed the Iraq war logs and the Afghan war logs, and the secrets about Hillary’s dirty tricks against Bernie, and taking the money away from Bernie and the Democratic Party, he revealed all of that. The Department of Defense in 2010 issued a paper saying “smear him.” And they started off by saying that he was a rapist, that he abused his cat—

RS: Did it use those words, “smear him”?

MS: Yes. He abused his cat, he smeared feces on the wall, et cetera, et cetera. And they were able to color, in the minds of the public, Julian Assange as being this horrible person. And that’s been a very effective smear campaign against him. So right now he sits in prison; to bring it up to date, he’s been adjudicated. They never got to the question of the First Amendment rights under the Espionage Act, they only got to the question of, he’s suicidal, he’s in terrible health. The judge, Baraitser, in the lower court said we can’t send him back to the United States, his health is at risk; given the prison conditions in America, we’re not going to send him back. Well, that was appealed by the Biden administration, the Democratic administration. And they won that appeal, and that was appealed again by Julian. 

And now the situation is the appellate court said, well, we can talk about an appeal if the lower court agrees to it, we can talk about whether the United States was allowed to introduce evidence after Baraitser made her decision that you can’t send him back. Then the United States stepped forward and they said, what do you mean? We’re going to give him the Waldorf Astoria treatment; we’re going to treat him nicely. And at that point the appellate court overturned the lower court decision and said, OK, you can send him back. So now the legal question is, should they review their decision in light of the fact that you can’t introduce new evidence after a judgment is made? But they did it anyway. It’s indicative of all the legal rules that have been broken since day one, since 2010, to get Julian.

RS: You know, Michael, you’re an attorney. And why don’t you talk about those conditions? Because in your book—and it’s a really important book to read. We have very few lawyers around that have shown the kind of courage and commitment to human rights that Michael Ratner showed; let’s not lose that. This is a book about Michael Ratner, who was a brilliant law student at Columbia University and could have had a great career making lots and lots of money if he’d gone to Wall Street or, you know, gone into an administration and then become part of the military-industrial complex. Instead, he decided to, you know, help the afflicted rather than those who are afflicting pain. 

And so the book is an important book to read if you want to know who Michael Ratner was, and what he stood for, and anybody interested in going into law should really read the whole book. But right now, I want to focus on this Julian Assange issue. And when you talk about these conditions, in your book you have a very moving description of what has been done to Chelsea Manning, originally Bradley Manning, in prison. And the whole purpose of finally President Obama, you know, at least said wait a minute, no—Chelsea Manning cannot be held any longer. But still now, Chelsea Manning is back in the clutches of this administration. And the real issue is, they want to get Chelsea Manning to say she, as Bradley Manning, did not do it on her own out of her conscience; that Julian Assange put her up to it. And that’s really what they’re—they want to use Chelsea Manning to nail Julian Assange and set an example of Julian Assange. Is that not what’s going on?

MS: Well, Bob—this is Michael Smith, Bob. Yes, I think that’s what’s going on. Of course, Chelsea Manning won’t play ball, so they’re stuck. Julian is in solitary confinement, which is a form of torture. He’s been there for almost three years, and he’s going crazy. He’s banging his head against the wall. He’s got a razor blade in his socks. He’s calling the suicide hotline. He’s really in terrible shape. In fact, in October he had a mini stroke; we’re all afraid that he’s going to have a major stroke. He’s got to get out of there. He hasn’t done anything; he hasn’t been convicted of a crime, and he’s been in prison how for three years. Michael Ratner represented Julian; that was Michael’s last client before he died almost six years ago. And if Michael were alive today, he’d be leading the fight to get Julian out of that prison.

RS: Why aren’t there more Michael Ratners, for god’s sake? I mean, you have even these human rights organizations—now PEN is one that I’ve mentioned—that are supposed to be protecting writers and journalists, and why isn’t there more of an outcry about this? I don’t get it. I really don’t—as Daniel Ellsberg has pointed out, this is actually a more egregious case than his own. And now people kind of remember, even the establishment, Daniel Ellsberg—well, he was heroic. Daniel Ellsberg, god bless him, you know, has been very clear all along that, wait a minute, what’s happening with Julian Assange, and also the case of Edward Snowden—these people did really important work that actually goes beyond his Pentagon Papers stuff. He’s been principled in defending Julian Assange. But where are the others? That’s the part I don’t get. And the reason I think people should read your book, and then ask themselves—I say this about every whistleblower: why are there so few? Why are there so few lawyers? Michael, you’re a lawyer. What’s with your colleagues? Where are they?

MS: I’m going to answer that, Bob, and then I’m going to ask Zachary Sklar to amplify what I’ve said. I think the reason that there are no more Michael Ratners is that Michael Ratner had a really basic understanding of what the law is. He said the law is, quote, “villainous,” that we’ll never get social justice under the law, not as it stands in this country. And he defined a liberal view of the law, and he said that a liberal view of the law—a liberal considers the law a considered response of a civilized society to the problem of reaching a reasoned and intelligent conclusion to disputes between the state and its citizens, or between the citizens themselves. 

Michael didn’t agree with that; Michael had a different view of the law. And I wrote this down, because I want to be very clear about that. Michael thought that the law was in fundamental essence nothing more than a method of social control—that is, social control created by a socioeconomic system; and by that he meant capitalism, corporate capitalism—determined at all costs to perpetuate itself by all and any means necessary for as long as possible. And from there, Michael drew four conclusions. And this is where I’m going to stop here, but I want to read you the conclusions that Michael drew.

RS: You don’t have to stop. We’re here to talk about the book that you wrote, so take it away. 

MS: Thank you, Bob. Well, here are the four key principles of being a radical lawyer that Michael wrote down and had glued to the wall over his desk. Number one: do not refuse to take a case just because it has long odds of winning in court. Number two: use cases to publicize a radical critique of U.S. policy and to promote revolutionary transformation. Number three: combine legal work with political advocacy. And finally, number four: love people. That was where Michael was coming from. Zachary Sklar, can you add something to that, please?

ZS: Well, I think that the question was, why have his colleagues and why have the press not run to support Julian Assange. It seems to me that they should, of course. The answer is, I think, that they’re afraid. The smear campaign against Julian is nothing new. I mean, they had him arrested in Sweden; those charges hung over him for years, and never amounted to anything. They were trumped up in the first place. But the word went out through the international press that this guy was an accused rapist. So all of a sudden you had people who were sympathetic to Julian, women saying well, he’s a rapist, I can’t support him. 

This is nothing new. I mean, Jim Garrison went through the same thing as soon as he uttered those three little letters, CIA, in relation to the Kennedy assassination.  The smear campaign is very effective, and therefore it scares people off from supporting. And you can go back to the Hollywood Ten, and the same thing happened; you had all those people in Hollywood who supposedly were going to support the Hollywood Ten, and as soon as their careers were in jeopardy they disappeared. 

So I think it’s a pretty simple thing: I think people get scared, they’re afraid their careers are going to be lost, and that’s what the government counts on, is people being afraid. Michael Ratner was not afraid. He stood up and, you know, his defense of Julian Assange fulfills every single one of those four principles that he had taped over his desk.

RS: You know, it’s interesting. Let me just say about smearing—and I love and really respect Daniel Ellsberg. I happened to be an expert witness, because I’d been writing about Vietnam, been there a number of times, and if there had been a trial I was going to be used. And so I have incredible respect for Ellsberg and what he faced. But the fact is, they tried to smear Ellsberg the same way. That was why they broke into his psychologist’s office, or psychiatrist’s office. They were trying to get dirt on him, and personal behavior. So this would apply there. 

But I want to stress this: that what Julian Assange did was validated as journalism because, as you pointed out in your book, it appeared in the New York Times, The Washington Post, Der Spiegel, and all these publications. Now, you say you’re going to shoot the messenger, you know, and you don’t care about him. Well, you know, you can’t deny—no one can deny that these leaks of information—you cannot understand American history in this postwar period, and certainly not in the Bush years, without what Julian Assange revealed. And so if there’s ever a case of shoot the messenger, that’s it here. And it’s appalling—let me editorialize, I don’t mind; I am a journalist. And the idea that there isn’t more support for Julian Assange—I’m dumbfounded by it. 

So let’s talk about that a little bit. And I want to say something about Michael Ratner. In addition, to take another set of such issues—Guantanamo, and torture. And Michael Ratner really distinguished himself, I mean, in many ways in his career. But certainly organizing a defense for Muslims accused at random of being terrorists, and the conditions at Guantanamo. 

And your book is fascinating, because when we meet Michael Ratner, this is a kid who had plenty of relatives who had died in the Holocaust, who was very consciously Jewish, who was involved with Israel and supported Israel. And here is a classic case of someone who could then also make criticisms of Israel. There was nothing self-hating about his Jewishness; he was very proud of being Jewish, and yet he saw the humanity of the other. He saw the humanity of Palestinians or Muslims or what have you, and he demanded fair play for them. Again, another whole category. And he suffered as a result, but he was really effective in organizing concern about the torture, particularly, that was going on at Guantanamo. So why don’t we talk a little bit about his role in that regard?

MS: Yes, this is Michael Smith. Michael believed in the rule of law. Michael believed in democracy. And he understood, going all the way back 20 years to the bombing of the World Trade Center, that things were going to take a turn for the worse. 

RS: He was there, right? In the area, in the neighborhood?

MS: He used to jog every morning, and he was actually—

RS: Yeah, but his relatives were in the building, in one of the buildings that didn’t go down. I mean, you’ve got that scene in the book. 

MS: Yeah, his brother Bruce, his younger brother, was in building number seven, and climbed down about 30 flights of stairs to get out of there. I was living right across the street from it; I saw it happen also. But Michael was profoundly shocked by what happened, and then what happened right subsequent to it, with the authorization of the use of military force, where Bush was given power to go to war against any country anywhere in the world. And that law still stands. They took the power of Congress to declare war away from Congress, and Congress went along with it. 

So the decline of democracy, the decline of law, the rule of law, we can take back certainly 20 years. And what you’ve had, beginning with the setting up of an offshore prison camp, which is what Guantanamo is—the Bush administration’s lawyers argued that Guantanamo was outside the law. That, you know, you can’t torture people under American law or under international law. They set up a torture camp for Muslim men and boys, and they wanted to assert their power and intimidate everybody, so they set up the Guantanamo prison camp. And Michael challenged that. Michael challenged—he was alone in challenging that. He had to persuade the people and the Center for Constitutional Rights that it was the right thing to do. 

And what Michael said was, these men have the right to habeas corpus. Habeas corpus goes back to medieval times in England, and what it says is, the king just can’t arrest people and put them in prison forever. If somebody is arrested, they have to be brought before a judge and they have to be told what the charges are against them. And Michael argued for that in the lower courts, and he lost. He argued for that in the appellate court, and he lost. 

But in 2004, in the Supreme Court of the United States, he won, in the famous case of Rasul vs. Bush. Michael was able to organize 600 lawyers from firms large and small, left and right, to come to the aid of these men. They got 500 people out of Guantanamo. They haven’t closed it yet; Biden can close it with the stroke of a pen, but he won’t do it. But in any case, that was the start of it. And you can make a direct line between that lawlessness 20 years ago, and the lawlessness of Trump in trying to overturn a democratic election. 

And that’s been the course of events in this country, the dramatic decline of democracy and the rule of law. And Michael—and I’ll close on this point—Michael understood that democracy rests on a free press. That people can’t make informed judgments unless they can read about what their government is doing in their name. And the national security state is trying to silence the free press with the Julian Assange case, make an example out of him, scare the hell out of any journalist that would publish this truthful information about what this government is doing. Zach, did you want to add to that?

ZS: Yes. I just want to add that what Michael recognized, as soon as that authorization for the use of military force came out, was that it had handed over the authority of Congress to declare war, and it had also taken away judicial review. These people were going to be in indefinite detention, never told what they were charged with, no right to counsel, and no right to judicial review. 

So essentially what the Bush administration had done was eliminated two of the three branches of the government—the Congress and the judiciary—and put everything in the hands of the executive, the president. Well, as we can see, that is a very dangerous thing to do, particularly when you have people like George W. Bush and Donald Trump and Joe Biden—all of them. You know, you cannot eliminate the separation of powers. 

And so Michael was fighting for the basis of the democracy, and that’s what he did, and that’s why the Supreme Court ruled in his favor ultimately, was because they recognized that their own authority to review what Congress and the executive had done was being usurped. 

RS: So give us the name of the case again. 

MS: Rasul vs. Bush. R-A-S-U-L, Rasul vs. Bush was Michael’s famous case.

RS: OK, and people will read about it. Let me just say something. The great thing about—I mean, I must say about the example of Michael Ratner, is if you’re not consistent about principles of freedom and individual freedom and democracy for the larger society, it doesn’t mean anything. You know, you’re always for punishing the people that are inconvenient to you; you know, that are criticizing a war you support, or a cause you support. 

And what has happened here with Guantanamo, what happened with Julian Assange, is that most people go with their partisan, tribal, whatever feelings. And what I loved about your book, and I’ll use that word, in the description of Michael Ratner—by the way, someone I had met personally, but really didn’t know that much about until I read your book—the great thing was his principle, his consistency. 

And you see it even when he’s at Columbia University; he’s on the law review; he is scheduled for an affluent life, big-time, this kid from Cleveland, Jewish family of immigrants in Cleveland, OK? And also, someone who was really quite comfortable, you know, with his view of the religion, of Israel and so forth. You know, he would be part of a minyan; he would eat at the kosher line in college and so forth. And yet when it came down to it, Muslims have rights just like Jewish people and Christian people. And this was the case here with Julian Assange. 

And what we’re seeing—because in your book it’s devastating, really, about Hillary Clinton. And Eric Holder, for example; you know, attorney general. These are people I’ve met, interviewed, talked to; present as enlightened. Hillary Clinton once at a White House dinner quite publicly said I was her favorite columnist. Eric Holder, I’ve had dinner with and so forth.  And then reading your book, these are the people who savaged our rights. And they are so vindictive about whistleblowers when the whistleblowers are exposing things that they’ve been involved with, or their party. 

I think that’s the power of your book. That this guy Ratner, Michael Ratner, he was consistent—consistent, when he was in law school, when he went to work, you know, as a law clerk and so forth. This guy could have gone all the way, in terms of money, power, and influence. Instead, principle—he was seized by principle, which I certainly would argue is the best part of the Jewish tradition, because of all the persecution of Jewish people; you have people like Daniel Ellsberg and Michael Ratner. So let me—we’re going to run out of time here. But I want to capture from you two guys, what is it that was so incredible, really, about Michael Ratner, as a model for what lawyers should be doing? 

MS: Well, Bob, let me go first. The name of the book is Moving the Bar

RS: Identify yourself.

MS: This is Michael Smith. Michael Ratner wrote a memoir; it was edited by Zach Sklar, the other guest on our show. And the book is called Moving the Bar: My Life as a Radical Lawyer. It’s put out by OR Books, either or. OR Books, O-R; OR Books. And I think Michael understood, after he went to Israel and the West Bank, he understood that what the Zionists were doing to the Palestinian people really undermined the moral authority that Jews had built up through the millennium. He became a total supporter of Palestine rights, and he helped found Palestine Legal. He said that the Palestinians should not be an exception to the First Amendment, and people who support the Palestinians should not be persecuted. And he helped set up Palestine Legal to work on that tremendous problem. The Jewish community should be proud of Michael, but Michael was not proud of those in the Jewish community who unquestioningly supported the Zionist state of Israel. Zach, what did you want to add to that? 

ZS: I just want to say that Michael was a human being first. He saw the law as a tool. He did not continue himself a lawyer first; he considered himself a human being, and he was a humanitarian human being. There are certain things that are universal. Torture is not acceptable in any culture or anywhere in the world. And that’s the principle that he was operating under, is that you cannot allow torture to be done in our name by our CIA, which is what was happening at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. 

I also think that it’s important to know that Michael did not fight winning causes; he lost a lot. He brought a lot of lawsuits against the U.S. government, particularly during the eighties when the U.S. was supporting wars in Central America, to try to stop those—and supporting dictators in Guatemala, for instance. And he lost a lot of those cases—or he won them, in the case of the Guatemalan general who had massacred so many people. He won the case under universal jurisdiction, meaning anywhere in the world, what this guy did was unacceptable, was horrible. And they won the case for a $46 million settlement, but of course they never collected because the guy went back to Guatemala. 

But that was the—the point was, he raised the issues; he brought them because they would publicize things that needed to come out. And just as Julian Assange has done: publicizing things that had been secret, and were horrible, and should be in the public domain; people should know what’s going on. And one of the things that, one of the reasons that someone like Hillary Clinton does not like Julian Assange is that, through release of diplomatic cables, he revealed her role, for instance, in supporting a coup in Honduras against a democratically elected leader. That’s the kind of thing Hillary Clinton does not want exposed. 

Michael did not go for victories; the success was without victory, often, but the success was in publicizing these issues and working with grassroots movements. Because he considered the law a tool that went hand-in-hand with the grassroots movements to try to change the world. That was his goal. 

RS: You know, I want to—we’re going to wrap this up right now, but I want to push it a little further. The book is called Moving the Bar: My Life as a Radical Lawyer. And it’s with the help of, after he died, Zachary Sklar and Michael Smith. It’s a compelling tale. I want to object to the use of the word radical. Because after all, reading your book, we’re reminded—when was the Magna Carta? 1257 or something, I don’t know—

ZS: 1215.

RS: Yeah, 1215. 1215! [Laughter] The principles that Michael Ratner was advocating around Julian Assange, around these Guantanamo—were in the, were supported by the Magna Carta. Tell us about that. I mean, this is not some hippie-dippy flower-child law thing; this is a guy who was the top of his class at Columbia University, established a career as a clerk with famous judges and so forth, and what he’s saying is, let’s go back to the Magna Carta and apply it. Isn’t that—

MS: Well, you know, Robert—this is Michael Smith—the irony is that people like me and Zachary Sklar and you, Bob Scheer, we’re really not so much radical; we’re the conservatives. We’re trying to preserve democracy and extend democracy. And we get slandered, but we really are in that sense conservative, aren’t we?

RS: You are. And let me just say, by the way—and this is going to get me in a lot of trouble here—I know we’re supposed to hate all these Republican appointees to the court, but our chief justice, at least on the question of the Fourth Amendment, Chief Justice Roberts, at least has been consistent with principles going back to the Magna Carta, and your home being your castle, and illegal searches. Which he argued, in a key decision when the police broke into someone’s cell phone, he argued and quoted Otis in the trial, famous trial, that this is what the American Revolution was fought about. 

And I want to bring up this question of consistency. Because in your book—and I’ll end, I promise I’ll end on this—but there’s an attorney now who’s under house arrest, Steven Donziger. I’m sure you’ve followed his case. And he, you know, he dared to challenge Standard Oil, Chevron, what they did, you know, in Central America. And his life—and this is a Harvard lawyer, you know, again, credentialed and all that. But the judge that has made Steven Donziger, you know, they’ve taken away his law license and everything—Judge Loretta Preska shows up in your book. And it involves the case of Jeremy Hammond, who got 10 years in prison, you know, for daring to expose what a private company did and so forth. Let’s end on that case. Because Michael Ratner cared, and he got involved in that case.

MS: Yes. This is Michael Smith. I was in court the day that Jeremy Hammond was sentenced, and I visited Jeremy in prison, in jail; I actually met him in a correctional facility before he went to prison. I visited Jeremy with Michael. Michael thought that Jeremy Hammond, and other people who did what Jeremy did in revealing these secrets, were the true heroes of our times. 

These very brave young men who—

RS: True heroes, by the way, of the internet age. We should talk about that, and also Aaron Swartz and so forth; you should talk about that a little bit, because he got what the internet really was all about. The potential to the worst, in terms of surveillance, and the most liberating. He understood this new technology. 

MS: Yes, Michael understood that these people were the true heroes of the internet age.

RS: This is the Anonymous collective that people have heard about, yeah.

MS: And Julian Assange was a computer genius. Julian figured out how to release this information anonymously. People all over the world could send information about the truth, about the crimes of the United States government, to Julian and he could release it without anybody being caught. And that’s why the United States government, all the branches of the security state, want to silence Julian. Michael understood that profoundly. That’s why Michael’s last client was Julian Assange. 

RS: Yeah. But, you know, I don’t know if you want to go into that particular judge in the Donziger case; I did one of these podcasts with Donziger. But what hit me—and I guess I’ll end on this—what hit me about your book is Michael Ratner knew what establishment law was all about. He was being groomed at Columbia to be one of the best and the brightest of establishment law. He was on the law review, of a small group of people. He was picked out as really one of the—some kind of a genius. And if he just had cleaned up his act and played the way they want—and you could talk a good liberal game, or so forth—he would have been incredibly wealthy and powerful. God knows where, maybe he would have gone to the Supreme Court. 

And what is so powerful about your book is why—and it had a lot to do with the anti-war movement and the Civil Rights Movement, very much the Civil Rights Movement of the sixties. That career trajectory—most people sell out because they don’t even want a reverse kink in their career curve. Michael Ratner said, the hell with the career; I will do it in a principled way. And I would like to know what that sauce is—how we get it, how we bottle it, how we give it to people. Because we have very few people that do what Edward Snowden, what Julian Assange, what Daniel Ellsberg, what Michael Ratner, what Chelsea Manning—very few. And so, just if you can give me the answer on that one, we can wrap this up.

MS: I’m going to give it a stab. This is Michael Smith, Bob. I think Michael was a product of his times. Michael was politicized, and understood the real, fundamental nature of this government after 1968. He came back to the Columbia campus the very night that the students had staged a sit-in to protest the college administration’s racism and connections to the war in Vietnam. Michael was beaten up savagely by the cops. He was there when the cops came in; they sent a couple hundred people to the hospital. They arrested 700 people. Michael was there; this was 1968. This was the same year that you almost had a socialist revolution in France. This was the same year that the Stalinist dictatorship in Czechoslovakia was shaken to the core. This was the same year that the Civil Rights Movement was really picking up steam. And Michael was a product of all of these historical developments.

 So when you ask the question, why don’t we have people like that now—well, I think that deep down, we’re starting to produce these people. Because the times that we are living through now are really dire, and that’s going to affect people. And the value of your show, Bob, if I might, is that you’re educating people. People need to be educated before they go into action. And what your show is doing is educating people. And both Zachary and I thank you so much for allowing us to be on. 

RS: I hope that doesn’t mean they pull the plug. [Laughter] Every time I’ve been complimented, whether I worked at the L.A. Times or anywhere else, you get complimented and boom, there goes the job. But we’ll see. OK, Zachary, you get the last word.

ZS: Well, I just want to add that Michael was not operating in a vacuum. I mean, it was not just the social context, but he had role models. You know, he worked at the Center for Constitutional Rights, and he saw older lawyers who had sacrificed their careers to work for the Civil Rights Movement. He saw people like Bill Kunstler. And for me, personally, you were one of those people, Bob Scheer. When I was in college, I saw what you did at Ramparts magazine. I read your exposés about the Kennedy assassination, and that had an enormous impact on me. And I think Michael had that happen when he was in contact with older lawyers. And there is a tradition, and people have to take the time to learn about that tradition and to be exposed to people who have done heroic work, and keep that work going. It’s very important. 

RS: All right. Enough of this praise, self-serving and everything. [Laughter] You know, but seriously, I would love people to check out this book, Moving the Bar: My Life as a Radical Lawyer. Or life as a true conservative lawyer. [Laughter] 

But really—we need role models. And Michael Ratner clearly is somebody I actually, you know, the JWK Foundation in memory of Jean Stein helps support my podcast here, and I met Michael Ratner at Jean Stein’s house. And we didn’t agree on everything; Jean Stein was great, great writer, and she loved Michael Ratner, respected him a lot. And we shared a cab back to his place down in Greenwich Village, and I think we stood on some corner arguing or discussing for two hours. And it was, I think, quite cold, and the two of us— [Laughs] you know, discussing. 

And you know, we’ve got to figure out, how do people get a backbone? How do they care? You know, getting the skills and being successful and having a career—we’re older guys here, the three of us—that doesn’t cut it. That’s not what you’re thinking about, you know, at the end of the day. You’re thinking about, what did you give? And that’s critical. 

So let’s end on that note. I want to thank Christopher Ho at KCRW for getting these shows up, posted; he does a great job. Joshua Scheer, our executive producer, nominated now for an L.A. Press Club award. I want to thank Joshua Scheer. Natasha Hakimi Zapata, who writes the brilliant introductions to these things, and does so much great work. Lucy Berbeo, who does the transcription. And again, as I mentioned, the JWK Foundation. That’s it for this edition of Scheer Intelligence. See you next week. 

4 comments

  1. How long you think to hold us here?

    Oh, a couple of hours.
    Then what happens here won’t matter.
    She’ll be Mrs. Joe Grant again.

    But that will change nothing.
    She is my woman. Before. Now. Always.

    Nothing is for always. Except death.
    Ask Fierro. Ask Francisco. Ask those in the cemetery of nameless men.

    They died for what they believed.

    The revolution? When the shooting stops and the dead buried and the politicians take over, it all
    adds up to one thing, a lost cause.

    So… You want perfection or nothing. You’re too romantic, compadre.
    La Rev olucion is like a great love affair.
    In the beginning, she is a goddess. A holy cause. But every love affair has a terrible enemy – Time.
    We see her as she is. La Rev olucion is not a goddess, butt a whore. She was never pure, never saintly, never perfect.
    So we run away. Find another lover, another cause. Quick, sordid affairs. Lust, but no love. Passion, but no compassion.
    Without love…… without a cause, we are nothing.
    We stay because we believe.
    We leave because we are disillusioned.
    We come back because we are lost.
    We die because we are committed.

  2. anyone that has read Tocqueville, Marx, Zizek, Lenin, Alinsky, etc is fully aware that a lawyer is the antithesis of a revolutionary

  3. Only Bob Scheer could get away with making an interview primarily about the interviewer. The breadth of his experience, and his ability to articulate it, is amazing.

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