Notre Dame Alum Talks about Defending the Unpopular

Last year, a headline in The Wall Street Journal called Thomas Durkin, ’68 A.B., “a terror suspect’s best hope in court.”

Durkin, a Chicago-based criminal defense attorney, spoke Monday at Notre Dame Law School about his career representing white supremacists, terrorists, and other persona non-grata.

Durkin said people often ask him how he became the go-to lawyer for terrorism cases.

“In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king,” he quipped. “The fact of the matter is there are not a lot of people who are willing to do this kind of work.”

Durkin’s work on terrorism-related cases began in December 2001 when, as he tells it, he simply answered his telephone and said “yes.” The call was from a lawyer in the Washington, D.C., area who wanted Durkin to join a case in which the U.S. Treasury Department had seized the assets of several Islamic charities, including Global Relief Foundation from suburban Chicago. The lawyers were challenging the constitutionality of the seizure.

Durkin knew about civil-forfeiture proceedings from drug prosecutions, so he agreed to join the Global Relief Foundation case.

Since then, he has represented defendants in notable cases such as Adel Daoud, who was charged with attempting to detonate a car bomb in Chicago’s downtown Loop, and the NATO Three – three men who faced terror charges but ended up being convicted of mob action and arson for building Molotov cocktails in the days leading up to the 2012 NATO summit in Chicago.

He said his firm currently was handling seven domestic terrorism cases that are pending in Chicago and four other states.

He explained what drives him to take those cases: It’s important to ensure that everyone receives a fair trial, he said, and ensure that government doesn’t stretch its powers inappropriately.

Representing Guantanamo Bay detainees in habeas-corpus cases had a major impact on Durkin.

He participated in the John Adams Project, a joint effort of the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, to provide civilian defense counsel to assist the military lawyers in the trial of high-value detainees charged in the Military Commissions at Guantanamo with conspiring to orchestrate the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Durkin represented Ramzi Bin al-Shibh, a citizen of Yemen.

“We are continually creating exceptions to the law under the guise of emergency powers,” he said.

“By putting foreign policy into the mix of national security and criminal prosecutions, we’re now getting into future dangerousness,” he said. “Our criminal justice system was never designed to predict future dangerousness. We always had a retrospective criminal justice system – if you did something wrong, you got punished for that. Now we’re punishing kids because maybe they’re dangerous.

“What we’re going to end up with in this country,” he said, “is preventative detention.”

Several Notre Dame Law School student groups were involved in organizing Monday’s event. The ​American Civil Liberties Union sponsored Durkin’s presentation with the American Constitution Society and the Future Prosecuting Attorneys Council.​