Michael Ratner, Champion of Human Rights and the Oppressed, Dies at 72

Michael Ratner—the renowned civil rights lawyer who sued Donald Rumsfeld over the United States’ use of torture, defended whistleblower Julian Assange and WikiLeaks, and oversaw a lawsuit that successfully eradicated the NYPD’s controversial “stop and frisk” practice—died from complications of cancer in Manhattan on Wednesday.

Ratner was remembered by activists, journalists, and lawyers worldwide as an indefatigable and dogged pursuer of justice, filing lawsuits on principle even when the odds were such that it seemed absolutely impossible his cases would succeed.

Author and activist Naomi Klein described Ratner’s death as a “body blow” in a tweet: “He was a moral giant, a fearless fighter, a lifelong learner. So many grieving this loss today.”

“To understand Michael Ratner’s courage and bone-deep belief in human rights, all you need to know is that he was the first lawyer to challenge the Bush administration’s policy of indefinite detention at Guantánamo Bay,” wrote the ACLU in a statement.

“But Michael’s principled stance against government overreach and abuse at home and abroad span the decades,” the civil rights group continued, “from fighting stop and frisk in New York City to helping to prosecute war criminals in Haiti.”

Ratner “used his law degree, integrity and skills for the greatest possible good,” tweeted Glenn Greenwald.

Despite extremely long odds, Ratner’s principled suits would occasionally be met with watershed moments of success.

One such groundbreaking moment was the Supreme Court’s 2004 decision in Ratner’s lawsuit Rasul v. Bush (pdf), wherein the court found that the George W. Bush Administration’s detention of prisoners in Guantánamo indeed violated the U.S. Constitution.

The decision marked the first time that the Supreme Court had ruled against a sitting president during wartime for his treatment of prisoners of war, and led to the release of hundreds of prisoners who went on to provoke further global outcry when they revealed the U.S. government’s illegal use of torture during their detentions.

Ratner devoted his life to such cases. After being radicalized by the Vietnam War and his direct experience of the Columbia University riots in 1968 as a law student, Ratner spent 40 years defending the powerless through the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), ultimately rising to lead the rights advocacy organization.

Ratner’s colleague and Georgetown Law professor David Cole credited Ratner with transforming CCR “from a small but scrappy civil rights organization into one of the leading human rights organizations in the world” in an interview with the New York Times.


As CCR’s head, Ratner was in charge of litigation that “in effect, voided New York City’s wholesale stop-and-frisk policing tactic,” the Times reports. “The center also accused the federal government of complicity in the kidnapping and torture of terrorism suspects and argued against the constitutionality of warrantless surveillance by the National Security Agency, the waging of war in Iraq without the consent of Congress, the encouragement of right-wing rebels in Nicaragua and the torture at the Abu Ghraib prison during the Iraq war.”

“No target was too daunting; Michael went after dictators, torturers, corporations, and the military, and he challenged the impunity of government officials everywhere,” wrote CCR in a statement.

Indeed, “Ratner made a career of suing the powerful,” as Cole wrote:

“Michael had the vision to see things on the horizon—things that others barely glimpsed, often dismissed, or were convinced simply didn’t exist,” CCR wrote:

“There has hardly been a progressive social movement in the last 45 years that Michael hasn’t been part of, contributing his phenomenally creative and cutting edge legal mind,” observed Katherine Franke, CCR’s board chair.

“All of us who treasure freedom and oppose oppressive state violence owe a debt of gratitude to Michael Ratner,” said Franke.

Ratner was also a longtime supporter of independent media, and he was frequently a guest on Democracy Now! and The Real News, where he was a member of the board.

Watch Ratner discuss the course of his early life and how it led him to become a civil rights defender in this 2014 interview with The Real News:

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