I read his article in the Supreme Court Review on the Guantanamo Bay cases and the disproportionate responses by various entities within the U.S. government. I knew that in 2001, when he was barely over 30, Katyal became one of Georgetown Law’s youngest full professors in history.
He’d already been National Security Adviser in the U.S. Justice Department and represented former U.S. Vice President Al Gore before the Supreme Court in a challenge to the results of Gore’s presidential campaign against George W. Bush.
One of my tasks at Georgetown was to ask whether it might be possible to schedule a radio interview with him on that most traditional of American family nights: Halloween. He seemed to easily fit it in to his busy schedule and still take his two young children out for trick-or-treating.
This was well before Katyal made his first appearance as a guest on Comedy Central’s Colbert Report in July 2006, before the media constantly requested interviews.
The Neal Katyal I got to know in early 2004 was “just” another high-profile professor at Georgetown. He was a highly accomplished and widely published academic. He was well-liked by peers and students, soft-spoken and friendly, but confident and quick, a second-generation American from a relatively apolitical family who managed to distinguish himself before college and attend Yale Law School before embarking on a prestigious and inspiring career.
He achieved widespread notoriety following his defense of Salim Ahmed Hamdan - Osama Bin Laden’s driver in Afghanistan, who had been detained in Guantanamo Bay - before the Supreme Court.
Katyal was already well on his way to becoming known for his criticism of many of the Bush Administration’s policies which had been established in response to 9/11, particularly those connected to the operation of military tribunals intended to hear the cases of Guantanamo Bay detainees.
When he took on Hamdan’s case, Katyal was writing not just his own brief, but coordinating some 40 friend-of-the-court briefs filed by human rights organizations, groups of high-ranking retired military officers, diplomats, historians, and conservative as well as liberal legal scholars.
In all, about 1,000 lawyers and law students worked on various parts of the case, with Katyal at the helm, listening, parsing and weighing divergent views on how to frame the legal arguments.
The work was so fast and furious that for well over a year, Katyal reportedly never got more than four hours of sleep a night. He received an estimated 3,500 emails per week and spent $40,000 of his own money on the case.
According to the Yale Alumni Magazine, when Hamdan asked Katyal why he wanted to help him, Katyal responded that he was doing it because his parents came to America to give their children better opportunities, and couldn’t imagine another country on earth in which he would be able to do everything he has been able to do. The U.S. Government policy on military tribunals discriminated against foreigners because if you were an American citizen, then you got a civilian trial. But everyone else was subject to an inferior system with fewer rights.
After the Supreme Court held 5 to 3 in favor of Hamdan, Professor Katyal spoke about the case to a group of interested Georgetown Law students. As part of that group, I was struck by his candor, his commitment to justice and his energy in the face of daunting opposition. His talk was interesting, concise and engaging. He demonstrated his strong advocacy skills and in-depth knowledge of even the smallest details of the case.
Few were therefore surprised when he became Acting Solicitor General of the United States in 2010. Even after leaving the Department of Justice, he has worked tirelessly to challenge injustice on issues ranging far beyond military tribunals in an estimated 17 cases before the Supreme Court, 15 of which were argued in the past four years.
With such a record, it is notable that Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts recently described Katyal as “one of the finest lawyers who has argued before the [Supreme] Court.”
I can’t wait for Neal Katyal to share his inspirational and energizing story with the Hague Academy community and the world at large.
By Micah Thorner
Photo caption: Neal Katyal at Georgetown Law.