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Fighting the Goodman fight

The Detroit attorney pursues a family tradition and Donald Rumsfeld

MT photo: Krysti Spence
Bill Goodman and the Center for Constitutional Rights defended Guantanamo detainees before it was fashionable.
Photo courtesy Walter Reuther Library, Wayne State University.
Ernie Goodman in 1953.
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Published 1/10/2007

Bill Goodman is returning home but that doesn't mean he's giving up the fight.

The life work of this native Detroiter and son of one of the city's legal pioneers has included high-profile and far-reaching cases that have helped maintain civil rights and constitutional liberties for countless Americans and others.

"I'll be back in court and happy to fight like hell and try and take on things I've always taken on, like abuse of power by public officials," says Goodman, who speaks with friendly certainty instead of fanatical authority. His goatee is shades of gray but his energy seems to hide his 66 years. "I've always responded to official abuse of power by using the few tools the law gives us to challenge it. That has never changed in my life."

In 1998, Goodman left Detroit for New York where his main work has been as the legal director at the Center for Constitutional Rights. In New York, he has represented Guantanamo Bay detainees, Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange and the wrongfully convicted teens in the notorious "Central Park jogger" case.

He's taken on the Bush administration, the New York City Police Department and the state prison system. He's working on cases involving domestic wiretapping and prisoner rights related to President Bush's so-called war on terror. He also unsuccessfully defended a Yemeni sheik charged with attempting to gather funds for terrorist groups. The sheik, Mohammed Ali Hassan Al-Moayad, was sentenced to 75 years in prison and a $1.25 million fine.

But Goodman's most high-profile and far-reaching case may be just beginning: He's been overseeing the complaint the center recently filed asking Germany's federal prosecutor to open an investigation of alleged war crimes committed by high-ranking members of the Bush administration, including former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, for authorizing torture at Guantanamo.

"I'm very comfortable with the evidence against Rumsfeld. There are a number of interrogation memos which are torture memos. They were prepared at his direction," Goodman says. "He was involved in almost a day-to-day supervision of some of these."

The German case is just the latest in several years' worth of legal action the center has taken at Goodman's direction. The center's attorneys were among the first to seek habeas corpus for the alleged terrorists detained at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, and Goodman has sought relief for the hundreds of Muslim men detained in national "roundups" after Sept. 11. Other cases have dealt with individual prisoners held and never convicted of terrorism or other crimes.

Howard Simon, the executive director of the ACLU of Florida and the former executive director of the group in Michigan, worked with Goodman when both were in Detroit and has followed his career. He describes Goodman and the center as the earliest pioneers in the now-growing movement to seek justice and human rights for the detainees.

Many major Washington, D.C., law firms now do pro bono work for the detainees, Simon says, but the center became involved in the tense months immediately after 9/11: "When Bill jumped in and the Center for Constitutional Rights jumped in, it was not as fashionable as it is now."

Filed on behalf of 12 detainees from Iraq and Saudi Arabia, the German complaint names Rumsfeld, former CIA Director George Tenet and a host of other defense and Pentagon officials. Through the provisions of Universal Jurisdiction — a German law that allows criminal offenses under international law to be prosecuted in Germany regardless of where the crimes occurred — the suit specifically seeks an investigation of the treatment and torture of prisoners in military jails in Iraq and Cuba, including the infamous Abu Ghraib compound.

"We've received very favorable attention in the press throughout the world about this," Goodman says. "The federal prosecutor in Germany now has to make a decision about whether she is going to move forward with this criminal complaint and commence a serious investigation."

The case is getting some high-profile support. Former Brig. General Janis Karpinski, who commanded military police soldiers throughout Iraq, including the prison guards disciplined over prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib, is voluntarily providing testimony for the case. Found to have not given her unit proper training, Karpinski was demoted to colonel in the aftermath of Abu Ghraib and has since retired from the military. But she maintains the prisoners who were abused, as documented in the infamous photographs, were under the control of private interrogators, not necessarily her military police units.

She points to the highest levels of the Bush administration when assigning responsibility for war crimes.

Karpinski's statement for the German court, as provided by the Center for Constitutional Rights, reads, in part: "I am willing to testify in a German criminal investigation because of the prison abuses in Abu Ghraib and the release of intentionally misleading information attempting to blame 'seven bad apples' when it was clear the knowledge and responsibility goes all the way to the top of the chain of command to the secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld."

The highest-ranking officer disciplined in the Abu Ghraib abuses, Karpinski says she became involved with the Center for Constitutional Rights after meeting Marjorie Cohn, a San Diego lawyer and law professor who asked Karpinski to speak to a class. Cohn is the president of the liberal National Lawyers Guild, a position Goodman once held. Through Cohn, Karpinski met CCR President Michael Ratner who introduced her to Goodman.

She's happy to help his international human rights efforts. "You don't ever find solutions if you are afraid of the truth," Karpinski says of her involvement with the center's ongoing investigations into her former bosses' actions. "I never was an anti-war activist. I never was an anti-administration activist. But this thing with Rumsfeld ..."

While calling the U.S. military involvement in Iraq an "illegal war," Goodman also describes the idea of ending it through court actions as "highly" unlikely and unrealistic.

"Courts resist lawsuits that are blatantly political. The argument is there's a political process. There's a democratic process in this country, and that's how we resolve these major political issues, whether our leaders have gotten it or not," Goodman says.

Seeking a legal end to war and military action has, in the past, failed, Goodman says. The center attempted a lawsuit to end U.S. military assistance in Nicaragua but a federal district court dismissed it.

Instead, the center's cases are aimed at more individual aspects of the Bush administration's military policies.

"Our end goal is not really just the war. We're fighting to preserve the U.S. Constitution, and I think that is addressed very directly in all of these cases," Goodman says.

Sweet home Detroit

Although Goodman will leave the Center for Constitutional Rights this spring, he plans to continue work on the Rumsfeld torture case as well as take on civil rights cases in his hometown. He comes back to a legal community where, in many circles, the Goodman name is revered.

"It's very strange in Detroit for there not to be a Goodman law firm. It's an absence," says Simon, who directed the ACLU of Michigan from 1974 to 1997. "It was such an important part of the work of the legal community."

Bill Goodman's late father, Ernest Goodman, opened the country's first racially integrated law firm here in 1951 with George Crockett Jr., who later served as a Detroit Recorders Court judge and congressman.

The firm, eventually called Goodman, Eden, Millender and Bedrosian, closed in 1998 after Bill Goodman left for New York. He had worked at the firm for 30 years, meeting the partners before he was even a law student. They included Robert Millender, an African-American labor attorney and political activist who was strategist or campaign manager for Coleman Young and other black officials during the 1960s and 1970s, and George Bedrosian, who is now the ombudsman for the Eastern District of Michigan.

During its five decades, the firm's lawyers — the Goodmans especially — were known for their dogged work on human rights and civil liberties cases.

If there was a constitutional or civil rights issue in Detroit during the last half of the 20th century, Ernest Goodman was probably involved. He defended six leaders of the Michigan Communist Party after they were arrested in 1952 under the Smith Act for conspiring to teach and advocate the overthrow of the U.S. government. Goodman lost the case at lower levels, but the appeals process led to the U.S. Supreme Court reversing the decision and releasing the defendants. The elder Goodman defended Black Panthers. He worked on school desegregation cases. He represented a soldier in an all-black combat unit stationed in the Philippines who was accused of murdering another soldier.

"He was valuable to people who were in trouble," says Detroit historian David Riddle.

The Goodman firm's influence continues beyond rulings and settlements its lawyers obtained. A group of Detroit historians, including Riddle, has a biography of Ernest Goodman under way. A made-for-cable film, The Killing Yard, depicts the defense of the prisoners in the Attica prison riots for which Goodman (played by Alan Alda) was lead counsel. A documentary called 1st Amendment on Trial: The Case of the "Michigan Six" recounts the Smith Act case.

Legal scholars can see decades' worth of Ernest Goodman's files at Wayne State University's Walter Reuther Library. Current law students honor Goodman's legacy with the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law's annual Ernest Goodman Civil Rights Mock Trial Tournament.

"Most of the moot courts at law schools have students do appellate work where you just argue to a panel of judges," says Alan Saltzman, the law professor who coordinates it. "This is a moot court where it's a trial ... and it's always a civil rights case."

The tributes are fitting. "Ernie Goodman was the guiding light of the progressive community of which my father was a member," says Lisa Gleicher, daughter of Morris Gleicher, a former Metro Times columnist and public relations practitioner for some of Detroit's leading politicians.

When Morris Gleicher was indicted for allegedly conspiring to defraud the state of Michigan, the Goodmans defended him — successfully — in federal court in 1980. An ongoing federal investigation into the Michigan Secretary of State's Office had turned up a $1,200 check to Gleicher for his work on the state's bicentennial license plate. The feds maintained state employees had done the work. But witnesses testified Gleicher had coordinated artists, metal suppliers, the paint company, prison officials and the Secretary of State's Office to produce the plate, earning him the $1,200 payment.

The government provided evidence for seven weeks, but the father-and-son Goodman team decided no defense was needed. It took the jury less than three hours to acquit Gleicher of all charges.

"Our legal defense costs could have bankrupted my family if it were not for the incredible support that came from other sources," Morris Gleicher wrote in the Metro Times in 1990. "Out of their sense of justice and their friendship, Detroit attorneys Ernest and Bill Goodman and their firm undertook my defense with no fee."

Now in private practice in Royal Oak, Lisa Gleicher worked for the Goodman firm after she graduated from law school in 1979 until 1994. Like all attorneys at the firm, she worked on pro bono cases, often in conjunction with the ACLU of Michigan. Gleicher and Bill Goodman handled several cases aimed at maintaining and restoring women's access to health services including abortion during the 1980s and 1990s. They didn't win very many of them.

The ACLU's Simon worked with the Goodmans on cases including the 1977 federal lawsuit charging the FBI and the federal government with not preventing the brutal attack by Klansmen against Freedom Riders in Alabama in 1961. Walter Bergman, a Michigan man, was critically injured in the assault and Goodman won him at least minimal monetary compensation after the jury agreed the feds had allowed the Klan attack to happen.

"What's Bill like as a lawyer? He's eloquent, inspiring and he always saw the big picture politically," Simon says.

Understandably both generations of Goodmans have had critics. The Capital Research Center, for instance, today calls the Center for Constitutional Rights a "friend" to "America's barbaric terrorist enemies" and accuses its staff of undermining America.

Bill Goodman was aware of his father's pariah status. "I remember him during the McCarthy period walking down the street and seeing people cross to the other side of the street because they were afraid to be seen with him and say hello to him," Bill Goodman says of his father, who died in 1997. "It took a lot of strength and backbone and dedication to principle to be able to live that way and raise a family and be part of the community."

Like father, like son

It's an understatement to say Ernie Goodman, as he was known, was an early influence on his son's life work. As a teenage camp counselor Bill once organized a mock trial as an activity for 10-year-old campers.

But Goodman also identifies a summer job as being almost as influential as his father's professional life. After his first year of law school at the University of Chicago, Goodman chose to intern at a small African-American law firm in Virginia where he helped draft pleadings and develop legal arguments in desegregation cases throughout the South.

"I became very engaged in what it means to be a part of history and work with real people in the struggle," he says. "That sort of moved me a great deal."

After graduating, Goodman returned to Detroit and worked with his father. They spearheaded the defense of prisoners charged in the Attica Prison riots of 1971. "Almost all of the criminal prosecutions — and there were a couple thousand — were either won or dismissed or the governor pardoned everybody because the prosecution was such a scandal," he says.

Robert Sedler, a Wayne State University law professor, sometimes consulted or worked with the Goodman firm on constitutional cases during the 1980s. The firm, he says, paid its bills with personal injury work, but "devoted a certain amount of its time to pro bono and civil rights litigation. It was understood that every lawyer there was going to do some work on that," Sedler says.

In 1985, Sedler worked with Bill Goodman on the case that challenged the city of Dearborn's law prohibiting non-residents from using public parks. "The ordinance got struck down on racial grounds and also because of illegal search and seizure," Sedler says.

Since then, Sedler has stayed in contact with Goodman, seeing him at events and applauding his work with the Center for Constitutional Rights. And Sedler notes that over the years, the CCR has taken "more and more difficult cases" — especially after 9/11.

New York, New York

Goodman says it was "very hard" to leave Detroit in 1998, but when the Center for Constitutional Rights needed a new legal director, he knew he had to apply. It's an organization that goes back to the '60s with the era's firebrand lawyer William Kunstler as one of its founders. Its high-profile clients have included defense of the Chicago 7, and it handled the case establishing, in 1972, that electronic surveillance without a warrant is unconstitutional.

"I decided to engage in civil rights on a full-time basis," Goodman said. "I wanted to try and have some impact on civil rights and civil liberties issues."

His job included speaking engagements throughout the country and supervising the work of the center's 12 staff and three contract attorneys who were working primarily on racial profiling, police brutality and international human rights cases.

Sept. 11, 2001, changed everything.

"The minute it happened, it was clear to me it was going to be used and appropriated by these guys to try to undermine very fundamental civil rights and liberties in this country and around the world. It was crystal clear to me," Goodman says.

As Bush's "war on terror" began to attack domestic civil and constitutional rights, Goodman led the center into battle. For the last few years, the focus has been on detainees in U.S. military prisons who have been held on secret evidence, have never been charged and, in some cases, have been tortured. A series of cases has been filed.

"I made the decision that the center needed to get engaged in wrongful detention in the United States and at Guantanamo. We have taken on the Guantanamo issue in a way that no one else has or is willing to."

Goodman has enlisted decades' worth of contacts around the country for legal work on behalf of Guantanamo's prisoners. Ann Arbor defense lawyer Doug Mullkoff is one of the volunteers. Mullkoff met Goodman in the 1970s when he was in law school at the Detroit College of Law and Goodman was president of the National Lawyers Guild.

In June 2004, Mullkoff was reading a newspaper article about the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Rasul v. Bush — one of the Center for Constitutional Rights' first Guantanamo cases — that declared detainees did have the right to challenge their indefinite detentions in U.S. courts.

The federal government had consistently argued that the detainees, as "terrorists," did not deserve court hearings and could be held indefinitely as "enemy combatants." The center's attorneys clung to the argument that the prisoners were indeed entitled to the constitutional right to a trial and to refute whatever evidence the government claimed to have against them.

The Supreme Court victory for the center sent its attorneys — and volunteers like Mullkoff, now roused to join the fray — back into the circuit courts on behalf of dozens of prisoners since the ruling cleared the way for habeas hearings to proceed.

"What happened was, like any other thinking person in the world, I was ticked off to no end at the abuse by the Bush administration of law and the blatant violation of civil rights and international law," Mullkoff says. "I e-mailed Bill Goodman ... and said, 'If you guys need any colleagues to represent somebody, let me know. I would like to volunteer.'"

A few weeks later, Mullkoff found himself part of a national effort to ensure terrorist suspects held in U.S. detention centers at least got the chance to hear evidence against them in a courtroom.

"I went to Washington, D.C., and was trained among the leaders of the Guantanamo Bar Association," Mullkoff quips, "along with a bunch of people from all over the country, lawyers who had come in for a weekend mini-course on how to handle these habeas cases."

Mullkoff represented a Saudi Arabian prisoner, Majid Al-Shamri, who had been picked up in 2002 in northern Pakistan where he was doing charity work. "The United States and the Northern Alliance were driving the defeated Taliban out of Afghanistan at that time," Mullkoff says. "Anybody who found themselves there at that time, whether they were involved in something or not, were part of a crowd of people swept toward Pakistan." As part of the sweep, the U.S. military dropped fliers offering "$5,000 per head for any foreigners who would be turned over to the U.S. government, and, to an Afghan sheepherder, $5,000 was a lot of money," Mullkoff says.

Al-Shamri, who had fought side-by-side with U.S. forces when he was in the Kuwaiti army during the 1991 Gulf War, was sent to Guantanamo. In March 2005, Mullkoff, working with the center, filed a lawsuit on Al-Shamri's behalf on the grounds of violations of habeas corpus and the Geneva Conventions. After a U.S. District Court judge ruled the government had to file a substantive response, Mullkoff got security clearance to review Al-Shamri's file at the Pentagon.

"I could not believe how lame the reasons given by the government were for holding my guy. I'm not allowed to tell you what they were, that's classified, but it was garbage," Mullkoff says.

Not long after, the government dismissed the basis for holding Al-Shamri and he was sent home to Saudi Arabia where Mullkoff believes he is still imprisoned. "He had informed me that he knew the Saudis may hold him in jail, but compared to being held by the Americans and the conditions of confinement at Guantanamo without charge, it was a no-brainer for him. He wanted to leave and go into Saudi custody," Mullkoff says.

CCR v. ...

In November 2004, the center filed a criminal complaint against Rumsfeld and other high-ranking U.S. military and intelligence officials in Germany on behalf of four Iraqi citizens who were beaten, made to wear hoods, sexually abused and deprived of food and sleep while in U.S. custody. According to the doctrine of universal jurisdiction, which Germany subscribes to, the prosecution of suspected war criminals can take place outside of where the defendant is located. The center had a friendly German prosecutor willing to take the case, Goodman says, though it could have chosen many other countries and might in the future.

The 2004 case was dismissed three months later, with German authorities, in part, saying it should be handled by U.S. courts.

A year ago, Goodman, on behalf of the center, filed a case to stop the Bush Administration's domestic electronic surveillance. The suit names President Bush and the heads of major security agencies and charges they are in violation of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act for the widespread, warrantless surveillance of people in the United States without judicial approval or statutory authorization. The case is progressing.

Then, in October, the center and other international human rights groups decided to refile the war crimes complaint in Germany after the U.S. Congress enacted the Military Commission Act. That measure, enacted in October, basically circumvented a U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Goodman says, by:

•    Creating a "broad and sweeping definition of who is an illegal enemy combatant,"

•    Disallowing habeas corpus relief for "anybody who is an illegal enemy combatant who is held at Guantanamo Bay or anywhere else outside in the world, any non-citizen" which means they can be held indefinitely;

•   Allowing torture of detainees.

The act also grants retroactive immunity to U.S. officials for offenses they may have committed while interrogating terrorism suspects after Sept. 11. "It is a shame and a scandal that the United States Congress passed this statute," Goodman told an Oct. 2 meeting organized by The World Can't Wait, a New York-based group aimed at ending the Bush administration through impeachment.

But the Military Commission Act may provide the opening for the German case to proceed. One of the German prosecutor's objections to allowing the first case to continue was the possibility "justice" could proceed in the United States. But that hasn't happened and now can't with the Military Commission Act, according to Goodman.

"The military proceedings have been against very low-level army personnel and resulted in a few pathetic guilty pleas. They do not go to command responsibility at all," Goodman says. "That fact will be highly influential on the German officials who make these decisions. It becomes obvious there is not recourse in the American system to deal with these issues."

In addition, according to the complaint, Rumsfeld's resignation means he cannot claim sovereign immunity from international prosecution of war crimes. And new, additional witnesses, documentation and testimony are available to the center to supplement the first complaint, Goodman says, including Karpinski. Eight new prisoners have also been added as complainants. (U.S. Defense Department spokespersons did not respond to questions from Metro Times.)

The immediate reaction to the filing in October, Goodman says, was a flood of e-mails —many initiated from the "action alert" on the Center's Web site — to the German prosecutor urging her to proceed. "She was just swamped with e-mails, thousands of e-mails which shut down her e-mail," Goodman says. "We can track through our Web site how many e-mails go out. We know numbers."

The case has been hotly debated in international law circles, says Brad Roth, associate professor of political science and law at Wayne State University, who sees both value and frivolity in the filing.

"It brings a kind of jolting attention to a lot of what's been going on in the architecture of the Bush administration's war on terrorism. It catalogs a lot of the episodes of mistreatment. It highlights efforts on the part of the administration lawyers to finesse the legalities, to put it mildly, of these matters. The fact that it sort of makes a spectacle of all this is, I think, a significant contribution," says Roth, who generally applauds Goodman's work.

But Roth doesn't agree with the legal conclusions of the lawyers at the center who drafted the complaint. He sees precedents in international tribunals and foreign courts only for cases involving mass atrocities or with few "plausible, recognizable legal defenses."

The filing and adjudication of such cases, according to Roth, could lead to an actual weakening of international criminal justice and a strengthening of the anti-international law forces in the United States.

"We will end up backing out of more international treaties. We will end up coming to regard international law in much the same way enemies of international law want us to regard it: as an impediment to our ability to proceed in the war on terrorism and as a weapon of the weak to balance the power of the United States," he says.

The German federal prosecutor is deciding whether to pursue the Rumsfeld case, and Goodman expects some sort of announcement within the next six months.

"It's a very political decision, obviously," he says. "I know it will be considered at the highest level of the German government."

Goodman seems to grin when discussing additional filings or expanding the accountability campaign for war crimes related to Iraq and detention facilities. Could George W. Bush be next?

"He's immune while he's in office but once he leaves office, hopefully he will be pursued by a prosecutor in another country because he really is a major war criminal and there is a need to acknowledge and recognize that fact," Goodman says. "His unchecked power is a very dangerous thing."

But sometimes human rights work — even of such global magnitude — isn't strictly aimed at the outcome of a single case but rather the process of filing the case and drawing attention to the issue.

Gleicher, who shared some victories and many defeats with Goodman during the civil liberties battles in Michigan, says sometimes cases are part of a broader, farther-reaching effort to change policy and right wrongs.

"Civil liberties litigation is not necessarily designed to win or to lose. There are other purposes to it. No. 1 is to raise public consciousness about issues. No. 2 is to learn information through the power of subpoenas and depositions and the power that you have as a lawyer in the case to bring to light information that otherwise would not come to light," she says.

The Rumsfeld case in Germany has similarities to the complaints against former U.S. National Security Adviser and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Perhaps the most famous diplomat of the late 20th century, Kissinger has come under increasing scrutiny with the book and documentary The Trials of Henry Kissinger, as questions continue to be asked about his possible sabotage of the 1968 Vietnam peace talks, involvement in overthrowing Chilean President Salvador Allende, and facilitating the bombing in Cambodia during the Vietnam War. Countries including France, Spain and Chile want to question him, and he has canceled trips overseas to avoid such hearings.

"Even if the American system of justice does not undertake creating some responsibility for these things, other countries will," Goodman says.

While the Rumsfeld cases have gathered the biggest headlines, Goodman says the center's work on other cases more graphically demonstrates the Bush administration's assault on constitutional rights.

As legal director, Goodman has led a class action suit filed in federal court in New York on behalf of the hundreds of Muslim men who were "picked up by the FBI and the Justice Department immediately after 9/11 and held under terrible conditions without any due process, some of the indefinitely," Goodman says.

Discovery continues on that case with depositions taken virtually every week. Goodman expects a trial, and he'll continue working on that case from Detroit later this year.

Goodman also will continue to represent anti-war protesters arrested at demonstrations in New York City, including those during the 2004 Republican National Convention. "It was outrageous. The NYPD made the decision to suspend the Constitution on the streets of New York in a city that supposedly has a rich protest tradition. It was terrible," Goodman says.

When he returns to Michigan, Goodman will open a law office with Julie Hurwitz, his ex-wife, likely in Pleasant Ridge, and work on civil rights cases. He expects a personal docket of police brutality and other abuses of public officials' power.

"I'm going to go back to what I've always done," Goodman says.

But he'll continue to challenge public officials at every level to ensure they live up to what Goodman considers the essential values of the United States. This week he headed to Cuba to demonstrate against the establishment of the Guantanamo detention center five years ago.

His message, he says, is consistent.

"America, this democracy, was created around the very basic idea that power should not go unchecked, and the more people can say to one another, the more information people have, the better decisions people will make. That's the First Amendment and the Fourth Amendment," Goodman says.

 

A Detroit demonstration marking the fifth anniversary of indefinite imprisonments at Guatanamo Bay detention facility is planned for 4 to 6 p.m., Thursday, Jan. 11, at Hart Plaza.

Sandra Svoboda is a Metro Times staff writer. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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