Neal Katyal

Not many lawyers have represented both the U.S. federal government and a suspect accused of co-conspiring with the world's most wanted man. But Neal Katyal has.

When Katyal went to the Supreme Court to defend Osama bin Laden's driver, his motive was idealistic. And that is the common thread running through his career in law. “I would like to leave to world a little bit better than I found it,” he says.

The same ideal motivated Katyal when he served as Acting Solicitor General under President Obama and as co-counsel for Vice President Al Gore in Bush v. Gore, the Supreme Court case that decided the outcome of the U.S. presidential election in 2000.

Two months after the 9/11 attacks, he read that President Bush had ordered military trials at Guantanamo Bay. Initially he thought it was a joke. But when it sank in that “the president on his own stroke of a pen could set up a parallel trial system” where “the punishment was predictably death,” Katyal could not stand idly by.

He contacted a member of the defense team for the Guantanamo detainees and together they looked for a test case to prove the unconstitutionality of the military trials. They chose Bin Laden's driver, the Yemeni Salim Hamdan, because he was “someone who may have been associated with a bad person but wasn’t himself directly accused of violence or hurting Americans in the War on Terror.”

Ultimately, the Supreme Court ruled in Salim Hamdan's favor, prompting the U.S. government to alter its policies regarding enemy combatants, the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and the application of the Geneva Conventions in civilian and military courts.

Defending Bin Laden's driver to disrupting drones: Neal Katyal at TEDxHagueAcademy

'Fighting for the Rights of Everyone'


Neal Katyal recalls the moment he met his client at Guantanamo Bay. Salim Hamdan, formerly Osama bin Laden's driver who was being charged with supporting terrorism, asked Katyal why he had taken the case as he was aware the lawyer had previously represented Vice President Gore.

Katyal gathered his thoughts and told Hamdan why.

“My parents didn’t come to the USA because of the quality of its sports teams or the beauty of its soil. They came to America because they knew they would be treated fairly.”

From that moment on, the lawyer with an Indian, Hindu background and his Yemeni, Muslim client were able to work together. Katyal says he was fighting not only for the rights of Osama bin Laden's driver, “but for the rights of everyone.”

This report gives more fascinating background on a trial whose outcome in 2006 has been labelled ‘historic’. Salim Hamdan scored a second legal victory in 2012.

(Image: artist's depiction of Salim Hamdan at the Supreme Court. Copyright AFP)

There's More Than One Way to Help People


When Neal Katyal told his mother he was applying to law school, she burst into tears. From sadness, not joy. Clearly this was not the career path she had envisioned for her son.

Growing up, there was only one profession Katyal's parents told him he could pursue: becoming a medical doctor.  He recalls being “indoctrinated into the medical profession from the age of two.” His mother and father told him time and again how, as a doctor, “you could help people.”

But over the years, he realized they had a “narrow conception of how to help people.” There were many other ways, and one of them was law.

It was during law school that he learned about a case that would stay etched in his mind, Korematsu v. United States, in which the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt's 1942 order that led to the internment of 120,000 Japanese Americans.

For Katyal, it was a “dark day in the Supreme Court’s history,” but it taught him that “the American system of justice (...) makes mistakes, and it’s up to all of us to try and figure out how we can strengthen the system so that it never happens again.”

(Photo: Neal Katyal lecturing at Georgetown University)