Working for Their Day in Court

By David McKay Wilson


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It might seem incongruous that during the same week in November 2005, attorney Julia Tarver ’93, was challenging the indefinite incarceration of prisoners at the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba and fighting for a major financial institution that lost millions in the Enron financial fiasco.

But Tarver, a partner since 2005 at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison in New York City, has found a job with an international law firm that lets her combine her heart for public-service law with her head for complex litigation.

In mid-November, she traveled far and wide for her disparate clients. On the Friday before Thanksgiving, she flew to London to participate in a conference sponsored by Amnesty International regarding allegations that the U.S. military has tortured prisoners at detention centers in Guantanamo and Bagram, Afghanistan.

She was back in New York by midnight Sunday in time to check her mail, sleep a few hours, and take a 7 a.m. flight Monday to Washington, DC. There, she met with attorneys plotting a response to the U.S. Senate’s attempt to strip Guantanamo prisoners of the right to challenge their detentions in federal court.

Tarver’s Guantanamo work is pro bono, which means her law firm pays her salary while she works at no cost to the detainees. To earn that pay, she flew that afternoon to Houston, arriving at the Four Seasons Hotel by 10 p.m. to review papers for the next day’s depositions on the Enron case.

“This job has the perfect mix,” says Tarver, 34, who lives on Manhattan’s West Side with her dog Justice, and walks a dozen blocks to work when she’s in town. “Doing the pro bono work can get frustrating and overwhelming, so I like to switch back to high-profile commercial disputes. It gives you a different voice.”

Tarver, the daughter of an Episcopal priest and a psychiatric nurse, began her involvement in social justice issues as a high school senior in Mobile, AL. She recalls hearing on the radio one morning in January 1989 reports of the impending electrocution of convicted serial killer Ted Bundy. She was unnerved by the public jubilation over her government’s decision to kill him.

“There was a huge tailgate party going on, and people were chanting for a ‘Bundy barbecue,’” recalls Tarver. “There was this whole carnival celebration. We were going to kill this guy. He was alive, and then we were going to kill him. I said ‘wait a minute, that’s not right’.”

That winter, Tarver began to study the thorny legal argument surrounding capital punishment. Her interest deepened at Rhodes and has remained a major thrust of her legal career. Her senior honors thesis at Rhodes examined women and the death penalty by examining homicides in Memphis. She found women were less likely to receive a death sentence because they typically killed someone in a fit of passion, and did not murder strangers in cold blood.

At Columbia Law School, she cofounded the Columbia Capital Punishment Coalition, establishing an organization for students who spoke out against the death penalty. It also provided research assistance to death-penalty resource centers around the country.

She was drawn to Paul, Weiss for its longstanding tradition of pro bono service by all of its partners. Soon after she joined the firm in 1997, she helped defend Johnny Paul Penry, a mentally retarded Texan convicted of murder in 1989 and sentenced to death. In 2001, the U.S. Supreme Court threw out Penry’s death sentence because the jury wasn’t properly instructed about mental retardation.

In 2002, the case was back in Texas State Court, where Tarver worked for six months to keep her client from dying from lethal injection. Among those observing the trial one day was Rhodes professor of political science Marcus Pohlmann, who was Tarver’s senior thesis adviser and coach of the college’s Mock Trial Team. Penry’s third death penalty conviction was recently reversed.

“I drove up from Houston to see her do the direct examination of the psychologist testifying on her client’s behalf,” says Pohlmann. “It was great to see her in action.”

At Rhodes, Tarver was by no means settled on a legal career. She majored in English and political science, and won honors in both disciplines. She was a member of the acclaimed Rhodes Mock Trial team and part of the unprecedented run that brought Rhodes into the top 10 in the national tournament each year from 1989 to 2004.

But on the team, she played a witness, not an attorney, displaying her ability to match wits with an opposing lawyer.

“Ironically, I didn’t do the lawyer roles,” says Tarver, who was honored at the 2005 American Mock Trial Association’s national tournament in Des Moines, IA. “I didn’t know if I wanted to be a lawyer. I was thinking of being an academic.”

In fact, at Rhodes, where she was resident adviser for two years at Bellingrath Hall, she first thought she’d become an elementary school teacher upon graduation.

A meeting with her freshman adviser, associate professor of political science Daniel Cullen, made her think twice about her career choice.

“I remember to this day telling him I wanted to be an elementary schoolteacher, and him telling me that I’ve got a passion for all these things, maybe I should consider teaching college,” she says. “I hadn’t really thought of that. It was one of those pivotal life moments, when I looked beyond what I thought I could do.”

Choosing a legal career has proven a good fit for Tarver. And the Guantanamo litigation has provided challenging battles on the front lines of the international war on terrorism. She’s part of a group of about 500 lawyers—both public service attorneys and those working pro bono for private firms—who dub themselves members of the “Guantanamo Bay Bar Association.” These attorneys have challenged the powers of the government to detain “enemy combatants” indefinitely without trial.

In June 2004, in what the New York Times called “the most important civil rights case in half a century,” the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that detainees at Guantanamo had a constitutional right to file habeas corpus petitions to challenge their incarceration in U.S. federal courts.

Lawyers at the Center for Constitutional Rights, who won the case, then recruited pro bono lawyers across the country to file the petitions. Tarver had crafted habeas petitions in death-penalty cases, and Jay Greenfield, a retired Paul, Weiss partner, asked her if she’d join the fight.

She did, filing petitions for 11 Saudi Arabian detainees, who have now been incarcerated in Guantanamo for four years. The U.S. government has filed no charges against the men. No date has yet been set for their habeas petition to be heard in federal court.

In spring 2005 Tarver traveled to the tiny Mideast country of Bahrain to meet the families of her clients, to get letters and photographs in an attempt to win the trust of the detainees.

“Julia’s an excellent litigator and deeply committed to this human rights case,” says Barbara Olshansky, deputy director of the Center for Constitutional Rights. “It’s always on her mind, she’s very forceful, and she has made the courts confront these important issues.”

Last summer, two of her clients went on a hunger strike to protest their indefinite detentions. In October, she made her third trip within the year to the U.S. Naval Station in Guantanamo to consult with her clients and learn more about the medical treatment they have received. She was appalled at what she found.

“They’ve completely lost hope. It’s a very sad situation,” she says.

One client told her that after seven days without food or water, he’d been verbally abused by military personnel and held in shackles or other restraints on his arms, legs, waist, chest, knees and head while being given intravenous feedings.

He was then force-fed through a tube strenuously inserted through his nose into his stomach in a procedure that caused him great pain and excessive bleeding.

“Yousef’s psychological and mental condition is commensurate with his rapidly failing health,” Tarver wrote in court papers filed in mid-October in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. “He has an absolute determination to die, and feels greatly betrayed by the false promises given to him by the American government.”

While the U.S. Justice Department argued that Tarver’s clients had engaged in “storytelling” and has denied mistreatment of detainees, U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler two weeks later ordered the U.S. government to notify attorneys before their clients were force-fed. She also ordered the government to give weekly medical updates and access to medical records.

Tarver says the victory was a small step in helping her clients. But she says she won’t let up until they can one day face their captors in court, and challenge the evidence against them.

“There are layers of sadness upon sadness at Guantanamo,” says Tarver. “These detainees have been there for years, isolated from their families. It’s a travesty. They deserve their day in court.”