PUBLISHED:January 21, 2009

Allison Hester-Haddad '08

Allison Hester-Haddad transferred to Duke Law as a 2L attracted, in particular, by the opportunity to enroll in the Guantanamo Defense Clinic. Securing a place in her second semester, she logged more than 350 hours of work — more than triple the clinic’s requirement — and continued working with Professor Madeline Morris, the clinic director, on Guantanamo cases through the following summer and her 3L year.

“I became obsessed with the issues I was working on — subject-matter jurisdiction and the critical role of the ex post facto clause. In enacting the Military Commissions Act of 2006, Congress created military commissions unlike any others we’ve ever had, cherry-picking the law of war, military law, and criminal law,” says Hester-Haddad. “It clearly hasn’t worked very well.”

Now a litigation associate at WilmerHale in Washington, D.C., Hester-Haddad remained in the clinic as an advanced student and served as case manager in her third year. After graduating last May, she returned to Duke Law for the fall 2008 semester, serving as a lecturing fellow and leading the Guantanamo Defense Clinic during Morris’ sabbatical.

“When Alli became a student in the clinic, she showed an exceptional ability to grasp complex ideas and to see their implications,” says Morris. “She quickly emerged as a student with whom I could hammer out a difficult issue.

“In the summer of 2007, when we were writing amicus briefs for United States v. Khadr [the case of Omar Khadr, a Canadian detainee who was 15 years old when captured in Afghanistan], I asked Alli to read an article that I myself must have read 10 times before. She came back the next day, pointed to a passage, and asked: ‘Have you noticed this?’ I had not. It was critical, a brilliant point — and the core of what has become a centrally important part of the debate. Allison was, to say the least, an extraordinary student to work with. She is at the beginning of what will undoubtedly be an extraordinary career.”

Hester-Haddad has developed such expertise in issues relating to military commissions that she has twice lectured at “stand-down” — the two days of orientation, briefings, and strategy sessions with defense counsel held at the beginning of each semester for incoming clinic students.

By her own account, her most memorable experience came as she worked on the Khadr case. All charges against detainee Omar Khadr had been dismissed by the presiding officer of the military commission, Judge Peter Brownback. (The legal basis for the dismissal was, in fact, a theory that originated at the Duke clinic, says Morris.) The government appealed the dismissal to the Court of Military Commissions Review (CMCR), a court that was provided for in the Military Commissions Act but had not yet actually been established when the government filed its appeal.

“I realized while we were writing the brief that we were appealing to a court literally being created to hear this issue. Its rules were being written while we were writing the brief. Its judges hadn’t yet been appointed,” recalls Hester-Haddad.

“One of the most surreal moments of my life was walking into the CMCR courtroom [for the oral argument]. It was completely amazing to me that this was a criminal appeals court created for the very issue it was about to hear.”

The daughter of two trial lawyers, Hester-Haddad did not originally plan to pursue a legal career. But, working in the juvenile division of the Public Defender’s Office in her home town of Ft. Lauderdale after completing her undergraduate degree at Tulane, she sometimes found herself “frustrated” that staff lawyers were arguing motions she had written, and decided to apply to law school. At the Public Defender’s Office, too, she demonstrated her initiative in forging new legal paths by helping to establish the new position of “disposition specialist.” In that position, she served as liaison on children’s behalf between her office, justice officials, mental health and substance-abuse professionals, and community service providers, working with them to secure sentences that would be successful alternatives to incarceration.

In addition to leading the Guantanamo Defense Clinic during the fall of 2008, Hester-Haddad taught the Appellate Practice seminar with Professor Michael Tigar. “It was an amazing experience to learn from him — to observe how he thinks and goes about constructing questions and arguments in the class,” she says of working with Tigar. Tigar returns the admiration.

“Allison is a superb teacher about litigation, in part because she embodies and communicates the qualities that a litigator must have: attention to detail, the ability to build a narrative from facts about a client’s experience, and enthusiasm about the process of seeking justice,” he says.

From Morris, who has become a close friend and mentor, Hester-Haddad says she’s learned to be more patient and deliberate while preparing an argument. “She’s taught me to think behind things until we have the best argument — in a certain way, she has taught me how to think.” Hester-Haddad and 2007 Duke Law alumni Stephen Bornick and Landon Zimmer are collaborating with Morris on a book about Guantanamo, counterterrorism, and detention.

Hester-Haddad is grateful for the litigation experience she gained through the Guantanamo Defense Clinic and is certain it will stand out as a singular experience in her legal career.

“The cause is amazing,” she says. “I know I’ll never get a chance as an attorney to make the arguments I made through the clinic — to work with a statute that was hastily crafted in a crisis atmosphere — and to fight so hard against some of its shortcomings. You have a real opportunity to get creative and think outside the box. You’re fighting to keep the law of war intact. You’re fighting to keep the Constitution intact. And you are never forgetting there’s an actual person [you’re representing].”