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Donna Newman, Solo Practitioner, New York and New Jersey

published January 23, 2006

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( 70 votes, average: 4.9 out of 5)
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Donna Newman says the plight of her client Jose Padilla is a classic example of how the Bush administration has abused its power under the cloak of national security. The sole practitioner from Brooklyn says locking up an American citizen for several years without charge as an enemy combatant should scare all Americans. She equates Padilla’s case with the revelation that some American phones had been wiretapped without court approval.

“I think it’s just another example that the executive branch believes that they can take any of our rights and dilute them and then claim it’s in the interest of national security,” Newman told LawCrossing while slowly driving across the Brooklyn Bridge during the recent transport strike in New York. “I get really enraged when people say, ‘I don’t care if they listen, because I want to be safe.’ You can’t give up your liberties, because it doesn’t make you more safe; it makes you less safe.”

Newman, who left her practice as a speech pathologist to start law school at age 35, said the Bush administration’s actions often remind her of a totalitarian regime.

“When you don’t have your checks and balances, that’s exactly what Stalin did. Do you think Stalin got on his propaganda approach saying, ‘This is the reason we’re hurting you’?” she said. “And when the Third Reich started to arrest civilians, do you think they came out and said, ‘We’re arresting them because of their religion’? No. They said, ‘It’s in the interest of national security.’”

Padilla was arrested in May 2002 at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport after returning from Pakistan. At the time, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft alleged Padilla planned to set off a “dirty bomb.” FBI agents who followed Padilla from Pakistan arrested him on a material witness warrant and transferred him to New York. Newman was appointed by the court to defend Padilla.

Before Newman could challenge the warrant in court, Padilla was named an “enemy combatant” and handed over to the military. Padilla was indicted in November 2005, three-and-a-half years after his initial arrest. Newman believes the timing of the charges was politically motivated to avoid Supreme Court scrutiny of the case. Padilla was charged with membership in a North American terrorist-support cell and with conspiracy to murder and kidnap.

“He was indicted in Florida, but he has not been transferred from South Carolina to Florida as of yet, not to my knowledge,” Newman said. “Because the Fourth Circuit held up the transfer and asked the parties to brief on whether or not their decision, which we are appealing to the Supreme Court, is moot, meaning it’s no longer a case of controversy, since he was indicted on other facts.”

While Newman is now allowed to visit her client in the brig, she is not allowed to ask him if he has been tortured or other sensitive questions. Not asking certain questions was part of the deal she made with the government, she said.

On December 28, the Bush administration asked the Supreme Court to allow Padilla to be transferred from the military brig in South Carolina to civilian custody to stand trial. The request came in response to a ruling the previous week by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, refusing to allow Padilla to be moved to face charges in Miami.

The appeals court said that by charging Padilla in criminal court after holding him for three-and-a-half years as an enemy combatant, the Bush administration gave the appearance of trying to manipulate the court system to prevent the Supreme Court from hearing the case. The White House said the court lacked the authority to defy a presidential directive and noted that Padilla himself had requested a transfer to civilian custody.

Newman said she hoped the case would get its day in Supreme Court. When asked if she planned to argue Padilla’s case in the Supreme Court if it came to that, Newman paused. Newman is no longer handling the Padilla case alone and has the help of many other attorneys.

“That’s a long way off,” she said of a possible Supreme Court argument. “I think it interests every attorney. But every case is different, and you have to weigh what you think is best for your client, and sometimes it’s not your arguing. You can never let your ego get in the way of your client’s needs.”

Newman said her past careers as a speech pathologist and English teacher and her experience as a mother have helped her be a better lawyer because she is a trained listener. She graduated from New York Law School cum laude in 1986 and was the recipient of the Federal Litigation Award. She also holds a Master’s of Science in education from Brooklyn College of the City University of New York.

Newman intended to build a practice in medical malpractice to capitalize on her medical background. But during law school, she realized criminal law would be more interesting.

After clerking for several judges and working at a small firm, Newman started her own practice in 1991 and maintains offices in New York and New Jersey. She said starting her own firm made sense because she needed a flexible schedule while raising her children.

“There is a path that you step on each day, and you may not know where it’s going to lead you. And I say, ‘Let go. See where it goes,’” she said. “Be open to it. Because if you take life and you bite into it, you get so much from keeping your eyes open and [being] willing to try new things.”

The daughter of a Romanian immigrant, Newman said her father taught her to appreciate the freedom and rights she had as an American.

“I’m very patriotic,” she said. “I want my children and my grandchildren to have the rights that I have. My father so appreciated it. People who were born here sometimes don’t understand how important freedom is. And through my father, who was one of the most brilliant people I have ever known, I appreciate that freedom.”

Newman says there is no reason to give up civil liberties in order to feel safe from terror. And she rejects assertions that people fighting for civil liberties are not patriotic.

“When Mr. Padilla was taken by an executive order for what I knew to be and has come out to be—simply to interrogate him, it reminded me of the Spanish Inquisition,” she said.

published January 23, 2006

( 70 votes, average: 4.9 out of 5)
What do you think about this article? Rate it using the stars above and let us know what you think in the comments below.