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.