NEW YORK - Far from the typical corporate
Christmas card, a former U.S. federal judge's law firm is
embracing controversy with holiday cards showing the historic
Supreme Court session where he sucessfully challenged the Bush
administration's treatment of Guantanamo Bay detainees.
Even more unusually, the attorney who argued the case
before the nation's highest court is a Republican and former
federal appeals judge appointed by President Richard Nixon.
"Human rights issues are not Republican or Democratic
issues," said John Gibbons, whose arguments led to the Supreme
Court's landmark June ruling that foreign terror suspects held
at the U.S. naval base in Cuba can have access to U.S. courts.
Gibbons, a former chief judge of the U.S. Third Circuit
Court of Appeals in Philadelphia, told Reuters that he has
never heard criticism of his fight for detainee rights from
other lawyers, regardless of their party affiliation.
"I don't know any organized bar group that has taken the
position that the government is right. I think most lawyers
probably think the government has gone crazy," he said.
Certainly this soft-spoken former jurist, who takes long
thoughtful pauses before answering questions, is no
rabble-rouser. Gibbons is a devoutly religious man of
conviction, his colleagues say, who time and again has put
himself on the line when he thinks a wrong needs righting.
The strong human interest views held by Gibbons and his
Newark, N.J.-based corporate law firm Gibbons, Del Deo, Dolan,
Griffinger & Vecchione have led the former judge and his
colleagues, who usually handle business matters, to become
involved in a range of controversial cases.
These have led the lawyers to take on such causes as
fighting for the rights of sex offenders and challenging death
ROLE OFF BROADWAY
In December, Gibbons -- at age 80 -- even went beyond the
actual courtroom to take on a brief stint in the well-received
off-Broadway play "Guantanamo: Honor Bound to Defend Freedom."
The drama, which caused a sensation when it premiered in London
this spring, is a stinging indictment of the Bush
administration's handling of detainees.
While the play has helped to publicize the plight of
prisoners, it is Gibbons' recent Supreme Court appearance and
support of other lawyers that has struck the greatest blow to
date at the Bush administration's policies in Guantanamo Bay.
Arguing on behalf of foreign nationals from more than 40
nations held there as part of anti-terror sweeps, Gibbons urged
the justices to reject the government's view that federal
courts have no jurisdiction to rule on whether the prisoners
are being held illegally. He said the situation in Guantanamo
amounts to "a lawless enclave."
Although this may seem a strange stance for a Republican
appointee to the bench, Gibbons said neither he nor his firm
hesitated to take on Guantanamo Bay cases at the very early
stages of litigation.
"The decision for us was easy," he said, explaining that
the firm established a fellowship program 15 years ago that
pays lawyers to do public interest work.
While the Gibbons firm was one of the first to get
involved, there are now some 15 corporate law firms providing
free representation to about 70 Guantanamo detainees, according
to the Center for Constitutional Rights which is coordinating
Asked why not all of the some 550 detainees have lawyers,
Gibbons responded, "It isn't an absence of lawyers at this
Instead, the lack of representation is due to problems
lawyers and civil rights groups are having in getting the U.S.
government to provide names and other identifying information
about the detainees. In addition, detainees are hindered in
attempts to contact the outside world because their letters are
often significantly delayed and heavily censored by the
government, Gibbons said.
"The families of detainees don't know where they are,
haven't heard from them and don't realize they can hire a
lawyer," he said.
Gibbons predicted one of the next areas of litigation will
be aimed at forcing the government to facilitate detainees'
access to lawyers. "But I anticipate the government will
strenuously resist that," he added.
Indeed, litigation aimed at preserving civil rights in the
face of Bush administration anti-terrorism policies appears to
be expanding Gibbons' resume at an age when many lawyers would
be retiring. He has already left two jobs he could have held
for life -- his position on the federal bench and that as a
tenured law professor at Seton Hall University.
Asked if he plans to make any more job changes, he
responded, "I'm right where I want to be."
But what about his fledgling stage career?
"I don't think I'll quit my day job," he said.
© Copyright 2004 Reuters Ltd