Storming the Court: How a Band of Yale Law Students Sued the President--and Won

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9780743230018: Storming the Court: How a Band of Yale Law Students Sued the President--and Won
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A tale more riveting than fiction, Storming the Court is the true story of idealistic law students who challenged the United States government in a battle for freedom and human rights that went all the way to the Supreme Court -- and resonates today more than ever.

In 1992, three hundred innocent men, women, and children who had qualified for political asylum in the United States were forced into a detention camp at the American naval base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and told they might never be freed. Storming the Court takes readers inside this modern-day atrocity to tell the tale of Yvonne Pascal -- a young, charismatic activist -- and other Haitian refugees who had fled their violent homeland only to end up prisoners at Guantánamo. They had no lawyers, no contact with the outside world, and no hope...except for a band of students at Yale Law School fifteen hundred miles away.

Led by Harold Koh, a gifted but untested law professor, these remarkable twentysomethings waged a legal war against two U.S. presidents to defend the Constitution and the principles symbolized by the Statue of Liberty. It was an education in law unlike any other. With the refugees' lives at stake, the students threw aside classes and career plans to fight an army of government attorneys in a case so politically volatile that the White House itself intervened in the legal strategy.

Featuring a real-life cast that includes Kenneth Starr and other top Justice Department officials, U.S. marines, radical human-rights lawyers, and Presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton, Storming the Court follows the students from the classrooms at Yale to the prison camp at Guantánamo to the federal courts in New York and Washington as they struggle to save Yvonne Pascal and her fellow Haitian refugees.

At a time when the treatment of post-9/11 Guantánamo detainees has been challenged in the public arena and the courts, this book traces the origins of the legal battle over America's use of the naval base as a prison and illuminates the troubling ways that politics can influence legal decisions. Above all, though, Storming the Court is the David-and-Goliath story of a group of passionate law students who took on their government in the name of the greatest of American values: freedom.

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About the Author:

Brandt Goldstein, a 1992 graduate of Yale Law School, has written for The New York Times Magazine, The Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, and Slate. He writes a monthly feature for The Wall Street Journal online edition and is a visiting professor at New York Law School.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One: The Coup

Port-au-Prince, September 28, 1991.

Antenor Joseph swept into KID headquarters, several men flanking him. The building's courtyard was packed, his wife and fellow democracy activist, Yvonne Pascal, wedged in among the nervous crowd. It was late afternoon, hot and still, with heavy clouds interrupting the sunshine.

"Tande! Tande!" he yelled. "Listen up! We think there's going to be a coup tonight! Everybody's got to leave!"

Yvonne's heart jumped. There was an explosion of protest in Creole.

"How do you know?" someone called out.

"Evans got the word," Antenor replied, his voice echoing off the walls. "There's no way to stop it now. Go home!"

The shouting continued, but people began streaming out. Rumors had been flying through the city for weeks: President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was in trouble. Antenor's warning only confirmed what everyone had feared.

Yvonne fought her way through the crowd to her husband. He pulled her aside.

"Tonight, tomorrow," he said. "No one knows for sure. But it's coming."

Her chest felt tight. She had to get home, find the children.

"Don't go outside," he said. "Whatever you do."

"What about you? Where will you be?"

"I may not see you for a while," he whispered, holding her close. Everyone at the meeting was in danger, but as a key figure in KID -- the Confederation for Democratic Unity -- Antenor would now be a hunted man.

He hurried Yvonne outside, his arm around her. Downtown Port-au-Prince was a circus of hawkers and hustlers, the street choked with dented pickup trucks and tap-tap buses in frantic colors. Horns blared and thick blue exhaust clouded the air. Antenor signaled for a taxi, something they could not really afford. Several motored by -- beat-up Toyotas and Hondas jammed with passengers -- and he finally broke into a run, flagging one down at a clogged intersection. Yvonne squeezed in, and as the car pulled away, she watched her husband stride back toward the courtyard.

The cab careened around open-air markets and abandoned construction projects, then descended into Cite Soleil, a labyrinth of tin shanties and open sewers. Yvonne paid the driver and scurried down a muddy pathway. Shriveled men were hunched over dominoes. Bare-chested children in rags kicked at an empty plastic jug. Dogs scavenged through garbage, their ribs straining against sagging flesh.

She reached her three-room shanty, breathless. Her mother, Therese, was cooking rice and beans over a charcoal fire. Her six-year-old son, Jacques, sat on the floor, copying his name on a scrap of paper. Yvonne gave the boy a relieved kiss, then ran out to retrieve her eleven-year-old, Daniel, who was playing soccer in the nearby dirt churchyard. He didn't want to leave, but she dragged him home.

With both kids inside, Yvonne ventured out to warn the neighborhood about the coup. There was little need. People already knew. She could feel it around her -- a hard, dark fear. Young men were stockpiling machetes and rakes, shovels and old planks of wood, anything that might serve as a weapon. She grabbed someone's arm. You can't fight bullets with a stick, she argued. They had to resist, the man said. If enough people went to the palace, they could stop the military.

She shook her head. This was sheer stupidity. We have to stay alive for tomorrow! she cried. But they wouldn't listen. Resigned, she used the fading daylight to fill extra jars with water at the public stone fountain. It would be too dangerous to go out after dark.

Through the evening and all the next day, Yvonne and her family waited, tense, uncertain. Other local organizers rapped on the door, slipped in to talk with her. The teledyòl -- rumor mill -- was churning. But there were no soldiers around. It was strangely quiet.

And then, as darkness fell, gunfire erupted.

Yvonne raced into a bedroom with the boys and yanked them to the floor, shielding their bodies with her own. Bullets ricocheted off the corrugated metal roof with a loud pang-pang-pang. There was shouting, punctured by more gunshots. Screams and cries followed, and her children broke into sobs. She crouched over them, singing, raising her voice whenever the guns grew loud. It went on all night, the air laced with the acrid smell of burning tires from protest barricades. Well after sunrise, her children finally collapsed into sleep.

Later, the news crackled over her father's transistor radio on Radio Soleil: Aristide had been forced out of the country. She slumped in despair. Everything she and Antenor had worked for -- Aristide's election, a new beginning, a country where her children could have hope -- was gone. Yvonne lay low with her family for several days, worrying, brooding. Finally, with the gunfire growing sporadic and distant, she stole outside to investigate. Clumps of melted tires smoldered in the alleys. Bodies lay in pools of blood, flies buzzing around them, dogs tugging at their limbs. A heavy truck rumbled by on the main road. Her neighbor passed on the rumor: the coup leaders had ordered the dead dumped in Titanyen, the paupers' graveyard north of the capital.

Darting through the shadows, shanty to shanty, Yvonne made her way to the nearby pawnshop. She gave the owner a gourde, about twenty cents, to use the telephone. There was no answer at the KID office. She dialed the number again and again with no luck. Fearing the worst, she finally risked a visit to another KID member in a neighboring slum. Antenor, he reassured her, was safe. He'd gone into hiding in the Carrefour-Feuilles section of town, a poor hillside quarter overlooking the Port-au-Prince Bay. But KID's headquarters had been ransacked and the group's leader, Port-au-Prince mayor Evans Paul, had been arrested and beaten at the airport.

Yvonne steeled herself. While she did not have her husband's public profile, she was a known activist in Cite Soleil, which put her in serious danger. Graver still, authorities would see her as a means to track down Antenor. She got home as fast as she could, and with soldiers prowling the streets, she kept to the shanty, her children beside her.

Several weeks later, her husband remained in hiding; Aristide was still out of the country; and Cite Soleil had plunged into a state of constant terror. Every day now, people in Yvonne's neighborhood were slipping away. She knew some were bound for the countryside, seeking refuge with friends or relatives. But others were headed for the coastal areas -- the beaches near Cap-Haïtien; the island of La Gonâve -- where the boats lay waiting.

New Haven, September 4, 1991.

A sturdy Asian man shuffled into class with an overstuffed leather briefcase and a Lands' End canvas bag bursting with papers. He wore a navy blue blazer, and his stick-straight hair framed an open, fleshy face. He broke into a big grin.

"Hi, hi. I'm Harold Koh," he said in a guttural buzz. "Welcome to Yale Law School."

Koh greeted several students by name. They glanced around, wondering how he knew who they were.

"You've all got four classes this semester: constitutional law, torts, contracts -- and the one that really matters." Koh thrust his index finger in the air and his eyes lit up.

"This one! Procedure!"

Tory Clawson, a lanky first year in Birkenstocks, laughed along with everyone else. Nothing seemed to have gone right during her first day, but she'd heard that Koh's class was something special.

"Civil procedure is the ball game!" Koh shouted. "The ball game. Everything comes down to procedure. Does everyone understand this?" He paused as if he expected the students to answer.

"If you don't know procedure, nothing else matters. Contracts. You can have the most airtight contract claim in the world. You don't know how to file a complaint, you're out of luck. Torts. Someone can run over you with a tractor while a TV news crew films it. You don't understand how to take discovery, you'll never get the videotape!"

More laughter. Koh took off his coat and paced back and forth, limping slightly on his right leg.

"Procedure. Procedure. Everything," he said in a self-mocking tone, "comes down to procedure."

Koh went to the blackboard. Papers rustled on the desks as Tory and the other students reached for their pens.

In small capital letters, in the upper right-hand corner of the board, he wrote: 1. BIPOLAR & ADVERSARIAL.

"What's the essence of a lawsuit in our system?" he asked, eyebrows raised. No one answered.

"In a civil system like they have in France, everyone cooperates in a search for truth. The parties work together to figure out what happened and how to make sure justice is done. But what do we do here in America? What do we do?"

He made a fist and shook it.

"Fight?" someone offered.

"Right! We fight. We fight. Our system is bipolar: two parties. And it's adversarial. Roe versus Wade. Brown versus Board. Marbury versus Madison."

Tory scribbled quickly.

Koh clenched both fists and held them out. "Let's say there's a disagreement between two parties. They start here." He set his fists a few inches apart, indicating the extent of the dispute.

"But when they go to court, they don't cooperate. They each take a harder line. They stake out positions here" -- he moved one fist far to his right -- "and over here" -- and the other fist far to his left.

"Then pow!" He slammed his fists together. "They collide! And through this adversarial system, through this fight, what do we expect to happen?"

He paused for a moment, waiting for an answer.

"We expect the truth to emerge, right? Justice to be done. Right?"

Tory had come to Yale hoping to get involved in human rights work, though she wasn't quite sure what lawyers in that area actually did. The idea had seized her during a stint volunteering in Nepal, where she'd witnessed the country's 1990 democratic revolution firsthand. After marching with hundreds of thousands through Kathmandu's dusty streets, she dashed for cover as the soldiers opened fire. Terrified, she watched as the crowds sprinted off barefoot, leaving behind crumpled bodie...

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