Navy Lieutenant Commander Charles Swift and Georgetown Law Professor Neal Katyal are the recipients of the 15th annual Salem Award for Human Rights and Social Justice.

Swift and Katyal represented Salim Ahmed Hamdan in the Supreme Court case Hamdan v. Rumsfeld. Hamdan, a Yemeni citizen and former driver for Osama bin Laden, was captured in Afghanistan in 2001 and imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay. In 2003, Swift was assigned to serve as his defense counsel.

However, the letter appointing him as Hamdan’s defense counsel contained one caveat. Swift would have access to his client only when he negotiated a guilty plea. Swift thought that was an unethical condition and instead decided to argue that Hamdan should be accorded the rights and protections of the Geneva Convention and that the military commissions at Guantanamo were themselves invalid. He immediately called Neal Katyal, a Georgetown Law professor who volunteered his services to the defense team. What followed is more than three years of masterful legal maneuvering.

At issue in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld was the constitutionality of the military commissions that were set up to try as war criminals a group of detainees at Guantanamo. The President claimed that his inherent executive powers, as well as Congress’s Joint Resolution Authorization for the Use of Military Force, enabled him to try the detainees before these military commissions rather than regular military or civilian courts.

By a 5-3 decision the Supreme Court rejected this assertion of Presidential power. In his concurring opinion, Justice Breyer wrote, “Congress has denied the president the legislative authority to create military commissions of the kind at issue here.”


Lt. Cmdr. Charles Swift
Lt. Cmdr. Charles Swift

Lt. Cmdr. Charles D. Swift

Lieutenant Commander Charles D. Swift, a native of Franklin, North Carolina graduated from the United States Naval Academy in 1984. After seven years of active service, Swift took time off to attend law school at Seattle University School of Law, graduating cum laude in 1994. Returning to active service, he affiliated with the Navy’s Judge Advocate Generals Corp. He was selected as the Junior Officer of the Year for 1997.

Lt. Cmdr. Swift has twelve years of litigation experience—nine of those as a defense counsel—and has represented more than 150 service members in military justice proceedings, including serving as lead military counsel in more than 20 contested court-martials. He is admitted to practice before the Supreme Courts of the state of North Carolina.

Lt. Cmdr. Swift will be forced to retire from the armed services in March or April. Having recently been passed over for promotion to full commander, he will have to leave the military under its “up or out” promotion system. The military’s decision not to promote Lt. Cmdr. Swift was made despite a report from his supervisor saying he served with distinction. The military claims there is no connection between its decision and Swift’s defense of Salim Ahmed Hamdan although, coincidently, the decision came about two weeks after the Supreme Court decision.

Lt. Cmdr. Swift has received numerous personal military awards.


Prof. Neal Katyal
Prof. Neal Katyal

Prof. Neal K. Katyal

Neal K. Katyal is the John Carroll Professor of Law at Georgetown University Law School. He is American-born of Indian decent. He attended Dartmouth College and Yale Law School.

Prior to his appointment at Georgetown, he was law clerk to Justice Stephen G. Breyer of the U.S. Supreme Court and Judge Guido Calabresi of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. He previously served as National Security Adviser in the U.S. Department of Justice and was commissioned by President Clinton to co-author a report on the ways that the legal profession can enhance its pro bono activities and diversify the Bar. He also served as co-counsel to Vice President Al Gore in the Supreme Court election dispute of 2000 and represented the Deans of most major private law schools in the University of Michigan affirmative-action case before the Supreme Court. He was visiting Professor at Yale Law School in 2001–02 and Harvard Law School in 2002.

Before Hamden v. Rumsfeld, Katyal had never argued a case before the Supreme Court. He not only wrote his own brief and devoted thousands of hours in preparation, but he coordinated some 40 other friend-of-the-court briefs filed by a wide variety of scholars, military officers, diplomats, and organizations. In three years time, over 1,000 lawyers and students worked on various parts of the case, with Katyal overseeing it every step of the way. When asked by Hamdan why he was doing this, Katyal replied, “I am doing this for you because my parents came from India to America for one simple reason: America doesn’t treat people differently because of where they come from. We fought a civil war in part about the idea that all people are guaranteed certain rights, and chief among those is a right to a fair trial.”

Professor Katyal was awarded the 2004 Pro Bono Award by the National Law Journal and was named Lawyer of the Year by Lawyers USA for 2006.