STORMING THE COURT

How a Band of Yale Law Students Sued the President -- and Won

By Brandt Goldstein

Scribner. 371 pp. $26

Somebody tell Aaron Sorkin his next project has come in. Brandt Goldstein's new, nonfiction legal thriller has all the hallmarks of a script by the painfully missed screenwriter of the early seasons of "The West Wing": a small group of hyperarticulate, admirable and sometimes smug idealists for heroes; complex government processes to be demystified; unseen, large bureaucratic forces to loathe; and great moral issues at play in the ennobling back-and-forth of public life. Goldstein, a legal writer, is not in Sorkin's rhetorical league, and his fast-paced book -- the tale of the early-1990s lawsuits pushed by a band of professors and students affiliated with Yale Law School to try to help the miserable Haitian refugees incarcerated on the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba -- sometimes stumbles into triteness or legal confusion. But there's no question that he's gotten his teeth into something intriguing: You'd pitch it as "A Few Good Men" meets "The Paper Chase," with a bit of "Amistad" thrown in for good measure.

Despite the book's subtitle, its real protagonist is a professor, Harold Hongju Koh, a brilliant and principled international law specialist who's now the dean of Yale Law School. In 1991, when Storming the Court begins, Koh is a young, ambitious and somewhat disorganized professor, "a sturdy Asian man" with "stick-straight hair" around "an open, fleshy face" who limps slightly from a childhood case of polio. Underlying his strengths is his loyalty to his father, a political refugee who fled South Korea at the age of 40, after its 1961 coup, and found asylum in the United States. As such, when Koh takes up the Haitians' cause, he's arguing "for the very principles that had saved his parents and made his own life in America possible."

Around him, he gathers a motley crew of law students, including Lisa Daugaard, a sometimes strident campus leftie sneeringly referred to as "Lisa Do-Good"; Michael Barr, a classic young Ivy League careerist on the make; and Sarah Cleveland, "a reedy southerner" with an easy laugh. A lot of the heavy legal lifting also gets done by more seasoned lawyers such as Joseph Tringali and Jennifer Klein, both at Simpson Thacher & Bartlett, who get their heavyweight Lexington Avenue firm to help out, and the scrappy human rights advocate Michael Ratner -- to say nothing of Yale Law's then dean, the wise and long-suffering Guido Calabresi, who bravely lets Koh put his school at considerable financial risk from the hardball legal tactics of President George H.W. Bush's Justice Department.

The nub of the case turns on an issue with considerable contemporary resonance: whether foreign detainees on Guantanamo have any constitutional protections. In 1990, Haiti held its first democratic elections, making the radical priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide president. In September 1991, a military coup toppled him, sending many Aristide supporters into rickety boats rushing toward safer shores. When Coast Guard cutters became overwhelmed, the first Bush administration found itself legally barred from returning these political refugees to their persecutors. So more than 6,000 Haitians, many of them HIV-positive, wound up in the legal limbo of Guantanamo Bay, stuck between the homeland they could not live in and the haven they could not get to, surrounded by razor wire and some 2,000 U.S. troops -- and deprived of legal counsel.

That's where Koh and company come in. The story of the litigation that Yale took on to help spring the refugees is absorbing, and Goldstein's yarn is no less gripping because his subtitle siphons away much of the narrative's suspense. Rather, the main problem here is that Goldstein -- himself a Yale Law alumnus -- lets the charm of the familiar overwhelm his curiosity about the foreign. If you're looking for any meaty consideration of how Guantanamo came under U.S. custody, the history of U.S. detention policy, the chaos of Haitian politics or the intricacies of the society that produced the refugees that the Yalies strive so gallantly to help, you've come to the wrong book. The spotlight remains squarely on New Haven, not Port au Prince -- or Washington, for that matter, where the early Clinton administration sheepishly winds up with an initial Haiti policy just as callous as its predecessor's. While Goldstein does weave in short sections about the heartbreaking story of Yvonne Pascal, a pro-Aristide Haitian democracy activist who serves as a stand-in for all the detainees, the Haitians get vastly less attention than their would-be saviors in Connecticut. It's hard not to feel a bit of a bait and switch here: Storming the Court will get readers intrigued with Haiti and then tell them very little about it.

Anyone who's ever been to college or graduate school will find it easy to relate to Koh's students, with their propensities for all-nighters and youthful self-righteousness. But they can sometimes be a bit tough to take. When "Lisa Do-Good" visits Guantanamo, her suspicious clients accuse her of using their case to get experience, and she's hurt not to have the purity of her motives applauded. "I've been killing myself for these people," she thinks, choking back tears, "and they don't even give a damn." At moments like this, it's hard not to feel a glimmer of sympathy for one of the book's main villains, Paul Cappuccio, a Justice Department lawyer from working-class roots who recalls despising law-school "liberals holding forth about the plight of the underprivileged as if they were bringing down Truth from the Mount."

Moreover, there are limitations to Goldstein's storytelling method. He's said that he was inspired by Truman Capote's In Cold Blood and sought to create a similar sort of nonfiction novel. But unlike In Cold Blood, this book is not so much literary as cinematic -- one reason why Aaron Sorkin springs so easily to mind. Vast swathes of remembered dialogue are presented as direct quotations; arguments are always witnessed rather than described; the scene changes are so sharp that you can almost hear the director shout "Cut!"; and, of course, there's the obligatory where-did-they-wind-up montage.

On the upside, Storming the Court ends by focusing back on the law, with the Supreme Court's June 2004 decision in Rasul v. Bush, which ruled that keeping detainees not involved in terrorism for years on Guantanamo without access to counsel "unquestionably" violated the Constitution. That ruling still left the executive branch plenty of leeway in detainee policy, but those who cheered the Rasul decision now know what they owe to Koh and his proteges. *

Warren Bass is a senior editor of Book World.