Profile of Margulies's Work on Guantanamo

Lawyer replies to call for help from detainees; Guantanamo Bay prisoners' legal rights are his cause.
Doug Grow
Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN)
December 19, 2004

In his own way, Joe Margulies is a flag-waving optimist.

Someday, he believes, most Americans will look at what is happening at Guantanamo Bay and ask, "How could this have happened?"

How could we have funded torture? How could we have thrown hundreds of people in cages without benefit of charges, rights to an attorney, rights to Red Cross care packages, letters from home? How could we have supported a venture that violates almost every aspect of international law?

"It will collapse under its own weight," Margulies said of the prison in Cuba that was created and filled in the weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

When that collapse occurs, Margulies, a Minneapolis lawyer, will deserve much of the credit. Since November 2001, he has been pouring his energy into Guantanamo and all that it represents.

It was Margulies who was the key attorney behind a Supreme Court case, Rasul vs. Bush, that finally will let a little light into the Guantanamo cages. The Supremes ruled in favor of Rashul, meaning the United States must show a reason for detaining the forgotten people in places like Guantanamo.

How is it that a guy who lives in south Minneapolis got involved in a case that will end up in history books?

A bit of background: Margulies isn't so different from most of us.

He's 44 and married - to Sandra Babcock, an attorney who is creating legal waves of her own regarding the rights of foreigners who are charged with crimes in the United States. The two love to walk around the lakes and, when they have a little time, to travel.

Time, though, is precious.

"She's as crazy as I am," Margulies said. "We have a friend who says we measure our relationship in dog time. One dog year is seven years for a human. We are together one in seven days."

Margulies has a high-school-age son from a previous marriage. And his big hope isn't so much different from the hope of most parents.

"I want my son to be proud of what I do," he said.

What he has been doing almost exclusively for the past three years is trying to bring some semblance of process to the so-called enemy combatants caged in Guantanamo.

Margulies and Babcock always have heard calls to action most of us don't hear, or that we choose to ignore. For example, they both have been fierce foes of capital punishment.

"I've always been infuriated by government overreaching," he said.


There was a pause before a laugh.

"Maybe it's because I had two older brothers who beat up on me," he said.

Anyway, after 9/11, President Bush announced that a military commission would be established to deal with the people declared "enemy combatants." (In 21st century language, enemy combatants don't have the rights that prisoners of war have.)

Margulies and Babcock read about this plan and were horrified, so they set up a national conference phone call with colleagues involved in human rights work. This was new territory for all they contacted. Lawyers who would become involved in this case would need expertise in death penalty issues, military courts, civil rights law, international law.

The large group contacted by Margulies and Babcock quickly slimmed down to a core group of attorneys - Margulies and three attorneys from the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York - who are ready to march off to war for legal rights. (Others have since joined the fray.)

While this was happening, the family of Shafiq Rasul had contacted lawyers in Britain. Family members had received one censored letter from Rasul, a British citizen who had been arrested in Pakistan. The letter informed the family that he was being held at Guantanamo - and nothing more.

The British attorneys contacted Margulies, and his life was dramatically changed.

He still has time for some work with his firm, Margulies and Richman, which typically has handled criminal and civil-rights cases. But the cost of the Guantanamo case has been high in many ways.

For starters, this has been expensive work. He has handled the case pro bono, meaning no charge.

In an effort to "help sustain" the work, he accepted a position as a lecturer at the MacArthur Justice Center at the University of Chicago.

His life has become a series of airports and courtrooms.

"At Thanksgiving I was home for five days," he said. "I figured out that it was the first time in more than a year I'd spent five successive nights in the same place. But this is not a burden. I'm no martyr. This is exciting work."

And there has been success.

The Supreme Court verdict came in June. Now, the federal district court in Washington, D.C., is trying to work out details of how much due process is due those ghosts of Guantanamo.

A few weeks ago, Margulies finally got to meet his client, Rasul, at Guantanamo. But rights of attorneys and Guantanamo inmates are still so vague that Margulies will say little about their two days of conversation.

"I can say I was the first person he'd seen from the outside who was not an interrogator," Margulies said.

Of course, there have been some who have called him a traitor.

But others have recognized that he's doing special work.

For example, he received the first Don and Arvonne Fraser Human Rights Award from the University of Minnesota this fall.

And, he believes, the country is awakening.

Copyright 2004 Star Tribune