A proper salute
Law school honors Lt. Cmdr. Charles Swift for standing up for his principles and the Constitution
He loves to tell the story, and no matter how many times he does, it still brings tears to his eyes.
Lt. Cmdr. Charles Swift was in Yemin, wrapping up a trip in which he had been investigating and taking depositions on behalf of his client, Salim Hamdan, one of Osama bin Laden’s drivers. The United States government accused Hamdan of being a terrorist, because of his job.
The last night Swift was in Yemin, the grandmother of the house gathered all the girls together. Clad in jeans and T-shirts, about a dozen of them gathered around the elderly woman, who was illiterate.
She looked the girls in the eyes, and pointed at a woman attorney who was working with Swift.
“She went to school, and she studied very hard,” Swift recalls her telling the girls. “She got very good grades, and now she’s an attorney. And if you study very hard and you get good grades, you can be anything.”
That moment clarified for him the importance of the work he was doing to ensure fair trials for accused enemy combatants – and the fundamental idea that all people should be treated equally under the law.
“That woman will defeat Osama bin Laden,” Swift said. “Osama bin Laden is far more terrified of that grandmother than of any bomb we have. We want 10,000 of her. She will change the world.”
Swift returned to the School of Law in November to accept a Distinguished Alumnus Award for his fearless defense of his client, which resulted in what may be one of the most important U.S. Supreme Court decisions in history: Hamdan vs. Rumsfeld, in which the court struck down the military commissions the president wanted to use to try alleged enemy combatants held at Guantanamo Bay.
He also was the keynote speaker at a forum on presidential powers also drew renowned scholars and attorneys as panelists.
The law school was thrilled to have him visit and to have the opportunity to recognize him.
“He has earned immense respect,” Dean Kellye Testy said.
The bitter irony is that despite his success, Swift still doesn’t know if Hamdan will ever have a trial – or if Swift will be able to represent him if he does.
“I think the tragedy is we still don’t know the answer to that question,” Swift said. “It’s disappointing that it’s going to be longer. We deserve closure. But all great civil rights cases have a part 2. There is still work to do.”
The administration continues to push through other rules regarding commissions – legislation began within hours of the decision calling the administration’s proposed tribunals unconstitutional – and Swift has received word he won’t be promoted. Under
the Navy’s “up or out” system, he will leave the military in the spring. He hopes to continue to represent Hamdan privately.
“I’ve never had another person in the military say, ‘You’re not supposed to do this.’ Ours is a profession of honor. I did not see the commissions as honorable.” Charles Swift ’94
Still, Swift says the moment he heard the ruling in the Supreme Court was unforgettable and indescribable.
While the courtroom is generally packed for arguments, it was virtually empty when the decision was announced. Swift sat with co-counsel Neal Katyal, along with Solicitor General Paul Clement, as Justice John Paul Stevens spoke to them.
“That moment in the court was the most powerful in my life,” he said.
Swift said he has been overwhelmed by the attention the case has received – from high school students waiting in line all night to get in to hear the arguments to organizations that have asked him to speak to them. He is especially moved by the support from other members of the military who might have objected to his argument but stood behind his right to make it.
“I’ve never had another person in the military say, ‘You’re not supposed to do this.’
“Ours is a profession of honor. I did not see the commissions as honorable.”
He recalls a conversation with classmate from the Naval Academy who is now a colonel. “The rule of law is what I fought for,” that colonel told him. “Men die for this. Don’t forget that.”
Swift is not sure where his future will take him – perhaps to private firm to do pro bono work, perhaps teaching or working with a nongovernmental organization. Being a defense lawyer is his blood, and litigation is what keeps him going.
“I don’t judge the guilt or innocence of my client,” he said. “If I do that, I become what I oppose – a one-man court.”
He’s always ready for the next case, and doesn’t generally spend long pondering the one that just ended, but he allows himself some occasional reflection over a fine cigar.
“If I’ve won, I sit there and think about what a brilliant guy I am,” he said with a smile. “If I lost I sit there and think about what an idiot I am. It takes about 45 minutes to smoke a cigar, then I go to bed, and I get up and the next day there is another hearing or another case. That’s what a lawyer does.”
He doesn’t ever want people to see his leaving the Navy – whatever the reason for their decisions – as a shame.
“I have had a great job, and I got to be part of something like this,” he said. “What we should be about is service. I hope this case stands as evidence of that.”
He said he was honored to receive the award and was excited to see Sullivan Hall for the first time. He met with students, and at the reception and dinner in his honor, he had the chance to reacquaint with classmates and professors, and to say thanks.
“There was not class in my legal career that the law school did not prepare me for this case,” he said.
Swift is always quick to credit those who helped with the case, especially Georgetown Professor Neal Katyal and the firm of Perkins Coie, many of whom were in the audience when he received his award.
More than 240 people turned out to watch him accept his honor.
Robert Richardson ’95 attended both the Naval Academy and law school with Swift. He didn’t know him well, but he followed the case closely and recognized Swift’s photo in the news. When he got a message from Dean Kellye Testy recognizing Swift earlier this summer, he wrote back saying Swift deserved an award for his work.
“I figured he’s probably not going to given an award from the Naval Academy Alumni Association,” said Richardson, who runs own patent firm in Silverdale, Wash.
As a fellow Navy man, he appreciates the sacrifices Swift made to uphold the Constitution and defend the rights of the detainees.
“That’s why I joined the Navy,” Richardson said. “If we think like them, we’ve lost. We must always lead by example. This is why we serve.”
Fellow alum Larry Glosser ’95 enjoyed breaks and got study tips from Swift during law school. He doesn’t have time to attend a lot of law school events but said he made a point to get to the dinner honoring Swift.
“It was an amazing piece of legal work, and the tenacity he pursued it with was admirable. I’m proud of the law school for turning out graduates of his caliber and for recognizing him.” Larry Glosser ’95
“That one I thought was important, and if anyone was deserving of an alumni award it was certainly Charlie,” said Glosser, who has his own firm, Glosser and Kim, in Seattle, specializing in real estate transaction litigation.
“It was an amazing piece of legal work, and the tenacity he pursued it with was admirable,” he said. “I’m proud of the law school for turning out graduates of his caliber and for recognizing him.”