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September 26, 2007

UT Law welcomes detainee law expert Kristine Huskey

Kristine Huskey
Kristine Huskey, clinical professor of law and director of the new National Security and Human Rights Clinic at UT Law

On December 26, 2004, Kristine Huskey boarded a ten-seat turboprop bound for Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. She was going to meet with her then clients, twelve Kuwaiti citizens who were being held at the United States military base there. It was the first of twelve (thus far) trips she has made to meet with clients—many of whom have been held without charge for years.

The trip to Guantánamo requires a specially chartered flight that departs from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and even though the military base is only 534 miles away, the flight takes three and a half hours because the pilot must navigate around Cuban air space. Once on the ground—Huskey describes the base as hot, dull, and isolated—she is met with obligatory military escorts and searches of her belongings. These searches invariably turn up the pamphlet-size copy of the United States Constitution that’s always tucked in her bag.

The schedule on the base is strict and inflexible. Huskey meets with her clients, whose leg chains are connected to a bolt in the floor, for carefully apportioned amounts of time. At night, she stays in a small motel that is a twenty-five minute ferry ride and fifteen minutes by van from where her clients are imprisoned. “As a lawyer who used to work at a big DC firm, and meet with corporate in-house counsel at places like the Four Seasons,” Huskey said, “representing Guantanamo detainees is quite a different experience.”

In accepting her new position as director of the National Security and Human Rights Clinic at the University of Texas School of Law, Huskey is taking on perhaps the greatest challenge of her career. But her new Law School colleagues don’t doubt that she’s up to the task.

Derek Jinks, the Marrs McLean Professor in Law, regards Huskey as a force to be reckoned with. If you’re in a legal squabble, you want Huskey on your side, Jinks said.

“The thing that struck me about Kristine when I first met her is that there is this toughness, this defiance,” Jinks said. “She’s the kind of person that if she feels some wrong has been done and there’s something she can do about it, she is ready to roll up her sleeves and fight.”

Huskey certainly is rolling up her sleeves with the clinic’s caseload, an important part of which is representing detainees at Guantánamo. Jinks said Huskey’s wealth of experience with detainee cases while she worked in Washington, as well as her overall legal prowess, lay the foundation for the National Security and Human Rights Clinic. “All of the prominent detainee cases that have been handed down by the Supreme Court have her fingerprints all over them,” Jinks said.

When she earned her JD from UT Law in 1997, Huskey would never have guessed that in ten years she would be one of the country’s top experts on detainee law. But her life is notable for its unexpected turns. She spent most of her childhood in Anchorage, Alaska, before moving with her parents to Saudi Arabia. A few years after that, she enrolled in a performing arts boarding school in Michigan where she studied ballet. Following graduation she moved to New York City in the hope of dancing professionally.

Her life took another global turn when she relocated to Luanda, Angola with her then-boyfriend, a UNICEF diplomat. At the time, civil war was raging in the African nation. Food was in short supply, and few people spoke English. “So I learned how to speak Portuguese,” Huskey said. “I learned how to make bread. I learned how to live without a telephone, air conditioning, cable TV, running water, electricity—things most of us take for granted in this country.”

Huskey also saw firsthand what areas of armed conflict look like. “It’s a lot more varied than you might expect,” she said. “All kinds of different people get caught up in it—business people, visiting aid workers, travelers, citizens, civilians—the vast majority of whom are not involved in the conflict at all. That experience really helped me understand that sometimes people are just in the wrong place at the wrong time. One of the great strengths of our legal system is that due process can separate the genuinely bad actors from the merely unlucky.”

After two years in Angola, Huskey returned to New York and enrolled at Columbia University. In 1992, she graduated Phi Beta Kappa with a bachelor’s degree in Political Science. “I put myself through college, so graduating with honors was pretty intense,” Huskey said. “There were times when I had three waitressing jobs or bartending jobs at a time when I was also in school.”

Following her studies at Columbia, Huskey returned for a time to professional dance and modeling. Notable gigs included a major role in H-Town’s music video for “Knockin’ Da Boots”—a big hit on MTV and one of the most popular pop and R&B tunes of 1993—and a lesser role in Buster Poindexter’s music video for “Hot Hot Hot.” But these youthful diversions could never satisfy a growing desire to work for meaningful change in the world. She decided to go to law school.

Before enrolling, though, she spent a year backpacking through Southeast Asia. Her itinerary included India, Indonesia, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Thailand. Then she returned to the United States, settling in to her legal study in Austin.

Following her graduation from the Law School in 1997, she clerked for Justice Bea Ann Smith, ’75, on the Third Court of Appeals in Austin, then joined Shearman & Sterling LLP in Washington DC, where she represented international entities including OPEC and the Mexican tomato industry.

In 2002 she began working on detainee cases with Tom Wilner, her mentor at Shearman & Sterling. The longtime DC attorney agreed to represent several families of Kuwaiti detainees at Guantánamo after ten other DC law firms had declined. Rumblings of discontent from inside and outside the firm ensued. “Tom basically threatened to quit if we were not allowed to continue representing these people, because we had made a commitment to them and to standing up for the Rule of Law,” Huskey recalled. Wilner remained at the firm and continued working on the detainee cases. By 2004, their case had been heard by the Supreme Court as part of Rasul v. Bush, a decision that helped reestablish habeas corpus for detainees.

Huskey brings this hard-won experience to UT Law. The goals of the National Security and Human Rights Clinic are to teach students how to be principled practitioners and to impart lessons about contributing to the legal community and to society in the very significant debate involving national security.

“Through the Clinic, the Law School and its students will be involved in real-life litigation that is setting precedents in constitutional law, human rights law, and humanitarian law,” Huskey said. “These cases are now part of our history and will be discussed for decades to come.”

Related links:
Clinical Professor Kristine Huskey

UT Law launches National Security and Human Rights Clinic

Press contact: Kirston Fortune, UT Law Communications, 512.471.7330