The situation sounds familiar to anyone following the news — hundreds of non-American citizens are being held indefinitely at Guantanamo Bay without charge, and they are not granted the legal rights that they would receive on U.S. mainland. But the year is 1992, not 2005, and the prisoners are Haitian refugees, not Muslims accused of terrorism.
A group of Yale Law School students heard about the situation on the U.S. military base and in response filed a lawsuit against the U.S. government to secure the release the Haitian prisoners. The lawsuit eventually reached the Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of the refugees the students were defending. The students’ campaign is the subject of a new book written by Brandt Goldstein LAW ’92, “Storming the Court: How a Band of Yale Law Students Sued the President — and Won.”
Goldstein said the main lesson he wants his readers to take away from the book is that people can bring about powerful changes in the world through individual initiative.
“What this book is about, in the end, is people who passionately believed that the U.S. legacy, as a haven for refugees, should not be ignored,” Goldstein said. “They were willing to set aside everything else in their lives.”
Yale Law School Dean Harold Koh, then a professor, led the students in their efforts to free the Haitian prisoners. Koh praised Goldstein, a former student of his, for his depiction of the lawsuit.
“I think the book captures well the excitement of the case and the deep passion of everyone involved in it,” Koh said. “Brandt did a remarkable job of retelling the story on a minute-by-minute basis.”
Although Goldstein did not participate in the case himself, he said he was inspired to write the book in large part by his classmates’ dedication to their chosen cause. The students who brought the case to Koh’s attention worked in the Law School’s International Rights Clinic at the time.
The group of Haitians whose cause the students championed were part of a larger group that fled Haiti for the U.S. after Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was overthrown in a coup in 1991. These refugees were intercepted mid-journey by U.S. immigration officials, who sent some group members back to Haiti and granted asylum to others. Among those who received asylum, some tested positive for HIV and, along with their families — about 300 people — were not allowed to enter the United States becoming doing so would violate a rarely-enforced immigration law that barred HIV-positive people from entering the country. These refugees were sent to Guantanamo Bay, where they were held indefinitely without the rights accorded under U.S. law.
Ray Brescia LAW ’92 said he remembers the case as an important and exhilarating time in his life.
“To see the law have an impact on people’s lives in a way that I had not seen before was truly life-changing,” Brescia said.
Goldstein said he researched the case for five years, during which he conducted interviews with 225 people, some of whom he spoke to 30 to 40 times.
“Brandt knows more about what happened to us than we do,” said Lisa Daugaard LAW ’92, who worked on the case.
Despite the meticulous research Goldstein did for the book, he said he wanted it to be a compelling, character-driven story. Goldstein cited Truman Capote and Jonathan Harr, author of “A Civil Action,” as his primary influences.
“I want you to feel as if you’re reading the kind of narrative that pulls you along, just like you would when you’re reading a good novel,” Goldstein said.