Joseph Margulies
Joseph Margulies

Mr. Margulies is a Professor of Government at Cornell University. He was Counsel of Record in Rasul v. Bush (2004), involving detentions at the Guantánamo Bay Naval Station, and in Geren v. Omar & Munaf v. Geren (2008), involving detentions at Camp Cropper in Iraq. Presently he is counsel for Abu Zubaydah, whose interrogation in 2002 prompted the Bush Administration to draft the “torture memos.” In June 2005, at the invitation of Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter, Margulies testified at the first Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on detainee issues.

Margulies writes and lectures widely on civil liberties in the wake of September 11 and his commentaries have appeared in numerous publications, including the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, the National Law Journal, the Miami Herald, the Christian Science Monitor, the Virginia Quarterly Review, and the Legal Times. He is also the author of the widely acclaimed book, Guantánamo and the Abuse of Presidential Power (Simon and Schuster 2006). Among other accolades, Guantánamo was named one of the best books of 2006 by The Economist magazine. It received the prestigious Silver Gavel Award of 2007, given annually by the American Bar Association to the book that best promotes “the American public’s understanding of the law and the legal system.” It also won the Scribes Book Award of 2007, given annually by the American Society of Legal Writers to honor “the best work of legal scholarship published during the previous year.” He is also the author of What Changed When Everything Changed: 9/11 and the Making of National Identity (Yale Univ. Press 2013) and has won numerous awards for his work since 9/11.

Columns by Joseph Margulies
Answering My Hate Mail: Democracy, Anger, and the Goldilocks Dilemma

Cornell Law professor Joseph Margulies responds to an angry reader’s email response to his previous column, observing that anger can be a productive and healthy emotion but can also be all-consuming and destructive. Professor Margulies suggests that arguing over whose anger is righteous and whose is not is not productive; instead, we need something that strides above the arguments, a set of ideals against which we can measure whether a particular species of anger is one that society should honor and encourage.

Democracy and the Tribal Blame Machine

Cornell Law professor Joseph Margulies describes the tribal blame machine, which both sides use to demonize the “other” side and drive us apart. Professor Margulies argues that a mature democracy must reject the tribal blame machine and instead embrace a fair, sober, even-handed appraisal of the facts, free from hyperbole and pot-banging.

Was It Really a Threat to Democracy?

Cornell Law professor Joseph Margulies observes that while the events of January 6, 2021, were “horrific,” “criminal,” and “anti-democratic,” he suggests that they were never a true threat to democracy. Professor Margulies points out that polling may be misleading and that overblown partisan rhetoric, by either side, does not equip us to confront true challenges to democracy when they do arise

A New Answer to an Old Question

Cornell Law professor Joseph Margulies explains why, when asked how he can defend someone accused of horrible crimes, he no longer uses the response that most criminal defense lawyers use—that a lawyer doesn’t defend their client’s behavior but instead holds the government to its burden by zealously defending their client’s rights. Instead, Professor Margulies responds to that question that he is defending the client’s humanity against society’s impulse to reduce a defendant to their deed, imprisoning them in their past.

Social Media and Social Forgiveness

Cornell Law professor Joseph Margulies explains why social media is, by design, inimical to the idea of a forgiving society. He points out that, in general, we appreciate that a person makes choices not in a vacuum, but in the context of a combination of individual and societal factors, but social media eliminates this nuance and forces us to ignore what we ordinarily accept as the lesson of universal experience.

What Happened?

Cornell Law professor Joseph Margulies points out that the language we use—particularly the language we use to describe and talk with incarcerated persons—is unduly limiting and focused on a singular event to the exclusion of broader context. Professor Margulies proposes that rather than asking “What did you do?” we should ask “What happened?”—which is a wider question that wonders, with curiosity and compassion, what factors, perhaps over months, years, or even generations, brought a human being to this place.

Building a Forgiving Society

Cornell Law professor Joseph Margulies describes a society in which no transgression is so severe that society dissolves the bonds that connect all of humanity by its very nature. Professor Margulies points out that we live in an age when demonization is a first impulse rather than a last resort, and the inclination to treat a fellow human being as irredeemably unworthy of membership is, for many people, irresistibly seductive.

No More Prison Success Tokenism

Cornell Law professor Joseph Margulies explains why stories of people who serve extensive sentences in prison and then turn around to do wonderful things set an impossible standard for others who equally deserve freedom yet cannot demonstrate such achievements. Professor Margulies argues that hundreds of thousands of men and women are serving impossibly long terms, and they, too, deserve to be free by virtue of the change they have inevitably undergone through their years behind bars.

Criminal Justice and the Problem of the In Between

Cornell law professor Joseph Margulies describes the ambivalence and fear many of us feel toward the “in between”—the space between where we are today and where we imagine we could be. Professor Margulies points out that if we allow it, the fear of the in between will always keep us from the world we deserve, so we must find the courage to push past the fear.

Why Prisons Are Criminogenic

Cornell Law professor Joseph Margulies argues that prisons increase rather than decrease the likelihood that a person will find himself back in prison because the scarcity on the inside of nearly everything valuable requires illicit behavior and rewards violence. Professor Margulies observes that scarcity of essential goods in prison, such as food, medical care, contact with loved ones, etc., all but demands active participation in ongoing criminality and encourages prisoners to develop and refine the capacity for violence.

Our Cages

Cornell law professor Joseph Margulies describes how he arrived at his moral philosophy, summed up as “there is no them, there is only us.” Professor Margulies explains that it comes in part from an understanding that all of humanity is imprisoned by our individual autobiographies—the profound choices that define our existence, like how we respond to loss, shame, rage, and pain.

Answering My Hate Mail

Cornell law professor Joseph Margulies describes a recent piece of hate mail he received from someone who apparently saw him quoted in an Associated Press article about what a Biden administration might mean for the 40 remaining prisoners in Guantanamo. Professor Margulies explains that he can forgive the writer because he knows the writer’s rant most likely comes from a place of psychological and cultural insecurity, but at the same time he also holds the writer accountable for his behavior.

Can We Forgive the President?

Cornell law professor Joseph Margulies wonders whether we can—and specifically whether he can—forgive President Trump for all of the bad things he has done. Margulies reflects upon his career of representing those people many regard as monsters and concludes that he cannot and will not join in demonizing President or anyone else. Margulies points out that there are no monsters; we create monsters so we can demonize others as different from “us.”

In the Pandemic, Only the Rich Get a Safety Net

Cornell law professor Joseph Margulies debunks the notion that the poor are poor because they are lazy, while the rich are rich because they are industrious. Margulies distinguishes the stock market, in which 84 percent of all stocks owned by Americans are held by the wealthiest ten percent of American households, from the general economy and point out that for the poorest half of Americans—roughly 160 million people—the stock market is meaningless.

“Remain Humble and Compassionate—And Have a Plan to Kill Everyone You Meet”

Cornell law professor Joseph Margulies argues that to fix policing, we must change police culture and norms, starting with ending the warrior model of policing. Margulies describes what this model means and explains why it is such a substantial obstacle to productive relationships between the police and the communities they serve.

Justice Ginsburg’s Parting Gift

Cornell law professor Joseph Margulies explains why the passing of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg last week should invigorate the left into seeking lasting change through the legislative and executive branches of government. Margulies points out that the myth of the Court as the ultimate defender of underrepresented minorities and the poor is, for much of the Court’s history, just a myth. He calls upon people everywhere to vote and make their will known, and he predicts that the Court will not stray far from the popular will.

“Hi, I’m Richard, and I served 39 years for murder”

Cornell law professor Joseph Margulies comments on an essay by John J. Lennon, who is serving time in New York for murder, and a response by the sister of the murdered man responding to Lennon. Margulies points out that exceptional stories like Lennon’s set the bar too high, at the expense of the many who are ordinary.

America Has Failed

Cornell law professor Joseph Margulies describes a few of the ways in which America has failed its people—its inability to feed, house, and provide water for its poor, while at the same time finding tools to support and enrich its wealthy. Margulies paints a bleak picture of the number of Americans who will go hungry, be evicted, or lack indoor plumbing and access to clean, affordable water. In contrast, Margulies points out that the stock market—in which 84% of all stocks owned by Americans are held by the wealthiest 10%—has fully recovered.

Lessons of the Cooper Affair

Cornell law professor Joseph Margulies comments on the recent incident in which Amy Cooper, a young white woman, called the police on Christian Cooper, an African American man who was birdwatching in Central Park. Margulies argues that the repercussions of Ms. Cooper’s actions—her suffering public ridicule and losing the valuable commodity of anonymity—achieve both the consequentialist and retributivist purposes of our penal system, so for the state to prosecute her as well would serve only to humiliate and demonize her

The One Thing a Cop Can Do

Cornell law professor Joseph Margulies explores the idea of defunding the police, pointing out that we must first ask what tasks can only be performed by the police, and then ask the corollary question what tasks should the police do. Margulies uses several examples to illustrate the point that many tasks that we reflexively assign to the police can be better handled by others, and by assigning these tasks to others, we can effectively shrink the role of police in our society.