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Berkeley Law Students Launch Torture Accountability Initiative

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Thursday October 15, 2009 - 12:48:00 PM

A group of UC Berkeley law students launched a torture accountability initiative Tuesday, Oct. 13, dedicated to holding the authors of the infamous Bush torture memos accountable, reinstating respect for the prohibition against torture and ending executive abuse of power and impunity. 

Called the Boalt Alliance to Abolish Torture (B.A.A.T.), the group, at their kickoff Tuesday, hosted a panel of lawyers to discuss the memos crafted by the Bush administration’s legal counsels at the Department of Justice, including Berkeley Law Professor John Yoo, which attempted to legally justify the torture of military detainees in violation of both domestic and international law. 

Yoo, who spent the previous semester at Chapman University, returned to the UC Berkeley School of Law, formerly Boalt Hall School of Law, this fall to teach Civil Procedure II.  

He was met with protests from students, alumni and activists on the first day of class. 

Berkeley law school Dean Christopher Edley has defended Yoo’s actions on the basis of academic freedom, saying in a public statement that the university would carefully review the Justice Department’s internal ethics investigation findings regarding the authors of the torture memos upon its release. 

Berkeley law student and alliance member Megan Schuller said that Tuesday’s presentation was part of Ending Torture Month, a series of events and advocacy efforts scheduled to take place at Boalt Hall through mid-November. 

Stanford Law School senior lecturer Allen Weiner, visiting Berkeley law school associate professor Gowri Ramachandran, Berkeley law school lecturer John Steele and McGeorge School of Law professor John Sims, discussed topics ranging from international, constitutional and national security law to professional ethics at a panel titled “Tortured Justice: Why the Torture Memos Were Illegal,” to a packed audience inside the law school’s Booth Auditorium. 

A 10-minute film, Tortured Law, by Alliance for Justice, preceded the discussion, which was co-sponsored by at least a dozen social justice and student organizations, including the National Lawyers Guild–Boalt Chapter, Women of Color Collective, Boalt Muslim Students Association, South Asian Law Students Association, Law Students for Justice in Palestine and Alliance for Justice. 

Schuller said that the panel had been designed to make students more aware of legal issues around the torture memos so that they are able to take an informed stance on this controversial issue. 

She said that two of the alliance’s main goals are to push for accountability for all of the authors of the torture memos and to urge the university to open up its own inquiry into whether Yoo should retain his tenure at the law school instead of waiting for the Department of Justice to complete its probe. 

The alliance has established a separate committee to underscore the importance of accountability. 

“We hope we will inspire intellectual debate and discussion which as lawyers we are supposed to do,” said Schuller. “We are open to students who think this university is not the right forum for accountability. We think it is the right forum for accountability.” 

Sims asked the public to wait for a professional investigation by the Obama administration into the enhanced interrogation techniques that took place under Bush instead of jumping to conclusions. 

“Outsiders don’t know all the facts, I am not sure anyone knows all the facts,” he told the Planet. “John Yoo didn’t decide anything, but his piece of paper was part of the conspiracy to torture.” 

In the meanwhile, Sims said, “we need to convince the rest of the world that this was aberrational,” he said. “It was a mistake and should not happen again.” 

Weiner said that it would be difficult to bring a criminal case against Yoo. 

“There could be a criminal case, but it would be a tough case,” said Weiner, who practiced international law in the U.S. Department of State for more than a decade before joining Stanford. “A lawyer is not held criminally responsible for giving legal advice merely because that advice later is determined to be wrong. Perhaps more important than the issue of criminal liability is for the Obama administration to make clear what role it believes government lawyers should play. Their job should not be simply to find a legal theory that allows policymakers to do whatever they want. The administration should make clear that government lawyers must identify the legal and policy risks raised by what clients want to do. That's how lawyers can best help form U.S. foreign policy.” 

Second-year Berkeley law student and alliance member Gretchen Gordon said students decided to form the group to break the silence surrounding Yoo’s tenure on the Berkeley campus. 

“For a lot of students, before they get to Berkeley John Yoo is the issue,” Gordon said. “People come to the university with some sort of awareness of the issue. But when they get here, it’s the elephant in the room. It’s not discussed. We want to change that.” 

Although some Berkeley Law School students said they supported the alliance’s effort to publicize and address torture and U.S. detention policies, they hoped it would not become an attack on Yoo. 

“I would probably join a coalition against torture, but I would not feel comfortable joining an alliance trying to remove John Yoo from teaching or to question the university’s decision to keep him until he is convicted of a crime,” said Berkeley law student Patrick Bageant. “I hope it’s not Professor Yoo they are after.” 

Schuller defended her group’s position. 

“We don’t see it as an attack on John Yoo,” she said. “We are asking for the investigation because of the violation of international and professional law. Government attorneys should be held to a higher standard. Yoo is open to have his own opinion and views, but it sends out a wrong message to students on campus—that it’s OK to violate the law.” 

Schuller said she wanted to see something along the lines of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a court-like body set up to deal with human rights violations under apartheid, which could restore the legal principles against torture. 

“The issue for students right now is not Professor Yoo, it’s John Yoo, government lawyer, who engaged in professional misconduct and illegal actions that had catastrophic consequences for human beings,” Gordon said. “When Yoo writes an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal or the Washington Post, he signs that as a Berkeley law professor and it adds weight to his credence.” 

Schuller said the alliance, which at its fledgling stage has about 25 members, has not registered with the university as an official student group, but will soon. 

Berkeley Law spokesperson Susan Gluss told the Daily Planet that students were allowed to form whatever group they wanted at Boalt. 

“It could be to discuss all sorts of controversial issues—political, international, medical—UC Berkeley is the home of the free speech movement and we are a critical part of it,” she said. “I don’t think any group has ever been denied permission by the university.” 

Gluss said Yoo’s classes were so popular at Berkeley that students had oversubscribed them this semester. 

“He’s a great teacher,” she said. 

Bageant, who has taken three classes under Yoo, including one in California state government, described him as “one of the best professors on campus." “He’s simply fantastic,” he said. 

Schuller said although she had not enrolled in any of Yoo’s classes, she understood why they were so much in demand. 

“He’s very charismatic—and students want to hear from someone who has a different opinion,” she said. “It’s my personal choice not to register for his class because what he did was ethically and morally wrong. But I believe in due process, and all I want is an investigation. I can’t ask for anything more.” 

During the panel, Ramachandran addressed the possibility of the university investigating Yoo. 

“The reason I am afraid of a UC investigation is because it’s not clear if a crime was committed by Yoo,” she said. “That’s why Edley is afraid to jump into something.” 

Steele said the dean had “left open the door to discussion by another tribunal.” 

“I don’t know if an academic senate would know how to prosecute a crime or ethics violation,” he said. 

Berkeley law school lecturer Stephen Rosenbaum praised the alliance’s efforts. 

“Recent national studies have chastised law schools for offering curriculum that is short on professional skills and values,” he said. “This initiative appears to be a serious effort by Boalt students to examine ethical and policy issues in a conventional format—presentations by scholars and practitioners.”