How a Band of Yale Law Students Sued the President and Won

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Storming the Court: How a Band of Yale Law Students Sued the President—and Won depicts how a professor of law, Harold Koh, and students from the law clinic at Yale Law School accepted the extraordinary job to free the Haitians being detained on Guantanamo Bay. From reading Storming the Court, I felt both frustrated and inspired by the American Legal system. Brandt Goldstein tells the remarkable account of the true story of Yale law students and their professor who sued the American government in court over how the Haitian refugees were treated while being forced into detainment on Guantanamo Bay. The novel highlights the daunting tasks that lawyers and legal professionals are faced with when dealing with the American Legal system.

Additionally, Goldstein successfully reveals how American politics can impede judicial justice, especially in human and civil rights cases. The story comprises viewpoints from the students, the professor, and a refugee to illustrate how, through determination and persistence, the legal system can ultimately be used to achieve justice. And even though justice ultimately won, the path to success was a long uphill battle. Goldstein also demonstrates how politics influence the courts and government lawyers. The inhumanity displayed by the Bush and Clinton presidential administration, government attorneys, and even the guards at Guantanamo were more disheartening than I had imagined. These law students and the lawyers who helped liberate the Haitian refugees were courageous heroes.

The legal topics addressed in Storming the Court continue to have ongoing significance for obvious reasons. I was struck by the comparisons as well as the contrasts that can be drawn between the prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay and the families crossing the Mexican border into the United States. There is a law against allowing immigrants with AIDS in the U.S. However, there is also a law preventing the return of refugees to a home country where they may face persecution. A small group of refugees became caught amid legal ambiguity, and the American government seemed satisfied to let the refugees stay in the Guantanamo camp.

As part of its asylum assessment policy, the United States began testing the refugees for HIV. It then proceeded to separate all individuals who were HIV positive, holding them in legal limbo. Although they passed the asylum requirements, which prevented return to their persecutors, the American federal government refused entry to them because they were HIV positive. The United States government ultimately detained these individuals in a refugee camp, which resembled prison. 

The United States subjected these refugees to persecution not only from their home government, but also by the American government, a believed haven. Overall, Storming the Court was a great depiction of legal procedure and strategy. The story was compelling, and it was written fascinatingly, with two parallel stories that occasionally intertwine.

Res Judicata, also referred to as the doctrine of claim preclusion, bans a claim from being filed twice. In Storming the Court, Goldstein described Koh clarifying the concept to students, by shouting ‘It’s Latin for ‘the thing is decided” and ‘You get one bite at the apple!’ Res judicata prevents plaintiffs from suing based on a claim that already has been heard. Because a previous lawsuit, Haitian Refugee Center v. Baker, contested the returning of Haitian refugees and was already determined, the principle of res judicata prohibits the same claim from being heard twice. 

In 1991, after the Haitian government was overthrown, thousands of Haitian refugees began to come to the United States. However, as more refugees arrived, the American government started taking the approved Haitian refugees to the U.S. Naval Base in Guantanamo, Cuba, to detain them in military camps without due process rights and returned the other refugees to Haiti.

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Subsequently, in November 1991, the Haitian Refugee Center brought a class action lawsuit, Haitian Refugee Ctr. v. Baker, on behalf of all Haitians being held in Guantanamo at the time of the suit, or who would arrive at the camp in the future, to challenge President Bush’s screening policy, specifically the practice of returning Haitian refugees to Haiti. 

During the chaos of litigation, some of the law clinic students volunteered to conduct research for the plaintiff. In February 1992, the case ended with rejection of the Haitian Refugee Center’s petition for certiorari to the Supreme Court. Unfortunately, the res judicata doctrine from Haitian Refugee Ctr. Baker applied to all current and future Haitians who ended up at Guantanamo, which meant that it would be impossible to bring a new lawsuit.

The doctrine of res judicata signifies that when a court has determined a claim on the merits, then until that judgment is reversed, it is final and conclusive between the parties, concerning all facts which were considered in finding a judicial decision. The principle of res judicata is a means of preventing injustice, but also a means to avoiding wasting resources within the court system. Res judicata is meant to provide stability in civil disputes by ordering an end to litigation, and to prevent the frivolous reconsideration of settled questions. 

Res judicata is fair because it does not forbid a second suit based on a claim from a prior case when the claim subsequently raised involves a second, independent claim, or when the second claim is an ongoing wrong. A previous judgment on the merits only precludes another suit when it involves the same occurrences as the first action, requires the same evidence, and is based on the same facts presented in the first lawsuit.

In Storming the Court, Koh contended that there were vital differences from the Baker case. He explained that a new asylum interview procedure that had never been reviewed by the court, instituted by the INS after Baker was over, meaning that it this procedure had not been previously reviewed by the court.The two cases considered in Storming the Court were Sale v. Haitian Centers and HCC v. Sale Council. In 1981, the United States and the Haitian government agreed to stop and return any vessel heading to the United States, including all individuals who were not refugees and would not be harmed if returned. After the Haitian regime change, American policy was interpreted as all fleeing immigrants would be sent back unless they entered onto United States territory.

Sale v. Haitian Centers ultimately ended with the U.S. Supreme Court decision that the President’s executive order, that all aliens intercepted at sea could be returned, was not restricted by the Immigration and Nationality Act or Article 33 of the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. It further established that aliens outside of the United States territory have no rights to procedural protections relating to the consideration of asylum claims, or to avoid being returned, even in the face of persecution. 

The Sale decision permits US presidents to utilize interdiction at sea whenever convenient, but it did not end the challenges of the Haitian Refugees, particularly relating to the interdiction process. Koh’s law students ultimately won the case of Haitian Centers Council v. Sale. These Haitian refugee cases revealed the idea of legal vacuums in which the law does not apply in certain geographic zones, especially concerning mass immigration and Guantanamo. Furthermore, the Haitian cases illustrated the evolution of modern civil procedure. Even more, Storming the Court imparted lasting lessons about advocating for human rights. 

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