Michael Ratner: The Leading Progressive Lawyer of a Generation

I just heard that Michael Ratner passed away from complications due to cancer. His New York Times obituary is here. My heart is broken. Michael was an extraordinary lawyer and and even more outstanding human being.

I first saw Michael when I was a law clerk at the D.C. Circuit, when he was arguing a case for the Center for Constitutional Rights, challenging the US policy in Nicaragua. Some fellow clerks whispered that “Ratner is a radical leftist.” But as I watched him, I could not help but be deeply impressed by his quiet courage, his obvious passion, his utter commitment to speaking up for what he believed. It was clear that he would lose the argument — after all, he lost most of them — but what was equally clear was that winning or losing didn’t really matter to him. What mattered was speaking up for what was right, and telling his government that it needed to listen to the people.

In the late 1980s, my students at Yale Law School asked whether we could start a human rights clinic. I thought it impossible to do so unless we had an experienced human rights lawyer as a co-teacher. David Cole suggested that his old mentor, Michael Ratner, might do it, and so I asked him to join us. Over the next few years, we lived a lifetime together as human rights lawyers. We became devoted colleagues and even more devoted friends. We worked on many cases, most memorably, the Haitian Refugee case, which changed the arc of my own life and that of everyone else involved, including Michael.

When you were in a fight, there simply was no one better or more generous than Michael. He never gave up; he always had an idea; he was always in a good mood; and he always had stunning perspective on every issue that tormented us. When we were the target of a Rule 11 motion by the US government, I was aghast. Rule 11s were motions I had only heard of in my nightmares. But Michael said to me, “Think of it as a badge of pride. I can never remember not being Rule 11’ed.” During the Haitian case, we had an endless series of conference calls among co-counsel — one night when we proposed to set one for 11 the next morning, Michael asked, “Can we do it at noon? I’m scheduled to get arrested at 11.” On another occasion, I got off a train at Grand Central and called our office only to be told that the judge had summoned us for a telephone hearing on an emergency motion. I talked my way into a maitre d’s station at a nearby restaurant to gain access to a speakerphone, and when Michael came on, I heard cheering in the background. When I asked him where on earth he was, he said, “I’m under the bleachers at a Mets game, speaking to you on something called a mobile phone.” Yet on the call, he was as cool and insightful and constructive a lawyer as one could possibly imagine.

I remember how happy Michael was when the Guantánamo refugee camp was closed at the end of the Haitian litigation in 1993. When it was reopened a decade later to receive al-Qaeda suspects, Michael was outraged, and he fought to close it again with passion and intensity each day for the rest of his life. Yet even as he so clearly saw right from wrong, he had a rare gift for treating every underdog, every opposing counsel graciously and humorously. He showed everyone personal kindnesses, and he mentored scores of students and young lawyers without ever asking a favor in return. Most of all, he so deeply loved his family: his courageous and visionary siblings Bruce and Ellen, his gifted wife Karen, and their brilliant children, Jake and Ana.

At his 60th birthday party, I had the joy of telling the assembled crowd that Michael Ratner was the leading progressive lawyer of his generation. I still believe that today. He was fearless and he was good. He never flinched and he never stopped. To me, he will always stand for the notion that standing up for principle is its own reward. He was one of my greatest teachers and examples. And every day, he put his body on the line for the notion that national security means nothing unless it is fair and just. As the decades unfolded, we did not always agree, but we never stopped loving each other. I never will. How lucky we all were to have known him. And the world without Michael Ratner in it suddenly seems to be a grayer, grimmer, less idealistic, and less inspiring place. 

About the Author(s)

Harold Hongju Koh

Sterling Professor of International Law, Yale Law School; Legal Adviser, U.S. Department of State (2009-13), Assistant U.S. Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor (1998-2001)