DENNIS ODA / DODA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Local attorney Eric Seitz debated visiting attorney Michael Lewis on the case of 1st Lt. Ehren Watada and on the legality of the war in Iraq at the UH William S. Richardson School of Law on Tuesday. Seitz, front, turned to answer a question from a student. CLICK FOR LARGE
Watada's attorney likes the spotlight
Eric Seitz wants Bush, Cheney and Rumsfield tried for war crimes for launching the invasion of Iraq
Students filled the jury box, judge's bench and witness stand of the Moot Court Room at the University of Hawaii's Richardson School of Law.
Still more students occupied the first three rows of the gallery, with professors, practicing lawyers and members of the public seated behind them and spilling out the door.
Born: Aug. 14, 1943, in New York City
High school sport: Tennis
Colleges: B.A., Oberlin (Ohio), and law degree, University of California at Berkeley
Wife: Dr. Rae Seitz
Some notable clients: Revolutionary Communist Party Chairman Bob Avakian, American Indian Movement leader Leonard Peltier, accused USS Ranger saboteur Patrick Chenoweth, former Bishop Estate trustee and Hawaii Senate President Richard Wong, Hawaiian songwriter and "murder for hire" defendant John Kalani Lincoln, Kahoolawe trespassers, Hawaii student Jennifer Felix of Felix consent decree fame, Iraq war opponent Ehren Watada.
All came to hear Eric Seitz defend the views of a soldier who refused to go to Iraq.
A longtime Honolulu litigator and defense lawyer, Seitz can be counted on for zeal as well as insight. And so the audience was not disappointed Tuesday as Seitz leveled a blistering broadside against President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and former Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld.
"Treaties, when they are properly adopted by this country, become part and parcel of American law," Seitz argued. "The president cannot select which treaties he is going to implement and ignore others. And his selective enforcement of the provisions of the law ... frankly, in my view, should subject him to a war crimes trial -- and, in fact, to the ultimate punishment which the statute requires, which is death.
"And if you want to quote me, you can say that," Seitz pressed. "I am more than happy to see President Bush and Vice President Cheney and Secretary Rumsfeld tried for war crimes. And I would be the first one to stand up and clap if they were punished as a consequence."
As the attorney for 1st Lt. Ehren Watada, a Hawaii-born soldier assigned to Fort Lewis, Wash., Seitz has found a bully pulpit for his disgust at the war and the administration. But the high-profile case, which resulted in a mistrial last month, fits lock step with Seitz's long march to defend little guys against the government.
What makes his enthusiasm for Bush's execution so anomalous is that 40 years ago, as a University of California-Berkeley law student, Seitz fought ferociously to save a convicted killer from lethal injection. Working with the attorney for Aaron Mitchell, convicted of murdering a Sacramento police officer during a robbery, Seitz helped fire a salvo of emergency appeals to Gov. Ronald Reagan in 1967.
"It's the only time I've worked on a death-penalty case," Seitz recalled in an interview. "And we lost. And he was executed. And it was the most wrenching experience. ... I've flirted with other death penalty cases since then, but I don't think I can do them."
What he has done would fill a history book.
In more than three decades in Hawaii, he has filed suits against the prison system, the police and the state Department of Education -- the latter resulting in the Felix consent decree favoring special-education students.
He successfully defended former Bishop Estate trustee Richard Wong on kickback charges.
He worked to reduce prison time for American Indian activist Leonard Peltier, convicted of murdering two FBI agents during a 1975 shootout at the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. In his office hang two of Peltier's original art pieces.
He successfully defended Hawaiian activists who trespassed on Kahoolawe to protest Navy shelling.
He has defended countless U.S. military personnel on criminal and administrative charges, one recent case taking him to Afghanistan, another last month to London.
"He's an excellent lawyer, very experienced in the courtroom and administrative hearing contexts," says UH law professor Jon Van Dyke, who first met Seitz when they were studying for the California bar exam. "He's a little bit unique in that he will take on the very difficult cases that most other lawyers avoid."
SEITZ SPENT his early years outside New York City, where his parents worked for the U.S. Works Projects Administration, a jobs program launched during the Depression.
His father, a public housing specialist, was hired to help Japanese-Americans find housing once they left the World War II internment camps. His mother helped found nursery schools.
Feeling the heat of the McCarthy era, his politically active parents moved to California, where Seitz lived from age 7 through graduation from Palo Alto High School in 1961. In school, Seitz played competitive tennis and was active with the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker-affiliated organization that works for social justice and human rights and against the death penalty.
With a bachelor's degree in government from Oberlin College in Ohio, Seitz studied law at Berkeley's Boalt Hall. After clerkships in the Bay Area, he joined the National Lawyers Guild in 1969, first as executive secretary in New York, then as staff attorney in Tokyo and Manila, representing GIs opposed to the Vietnam War.
"The military services are not well-equipped to deal with very aggressive civilian lawyers," Seitz observes. "They expect a lot of submissiveness and that is one of the problems in contentious cases where people don't have civilian lawyers. We developed a kind of aggressive style and very often drove them crazy."
Arriving in Honolulu in 1974, he taught an ethnic studies course at UH-Manoa on haole influences in the islands. A student, Rae Teramoto, became his teaching assistant and ultimately his wife.
Politics in the 1970s also united the couple, with Seitz serving as lead attorney for 17 Revolutionary Communist Party Maoists who were beaten, arrested and charged with 25 felonies each for a protest in Washington, D.C.
"Ultimately, seven people pled guilty to two misdemeanors and walked away with small fines," recalls Seitz.
His wife's political activities initially scuttled her admission to the UH John A. Burns School of Medicine.
Now at Kaiser Permanente, Dr. Rae Seitz is considered a pioneer in palliative and hospice care.
They have two children, Juli, 29, who works in Seitz's law office on Mililani Mall downtown, and Jeremy, 27, a soccer coach at Farrington High School, who is finishing up a UH master's degree in education.
AT THE UH DEBATE, Seitz faced Harvard-trained lawyer Michael Lewis, a former Top Gun pilot and law professor from Northern Ohio University.
At issue was Watada's contention that the Iraq war is illegal under the United Nations Charter, which establishes rules for when one country can invade another. Short of an imminent threat, the invading nation needs a U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force.
Lewis argued that Security Council Resolution 1441 fit that bill. Passed in November 2002, the resolution concluded that Iraq had violated previous U.N. demands to come clean on any weapons of mass destruction.
But even if the U.S. invasion were illegal, Lewis added, Watada was never asked to participate in the invasion. He was merely asked to deploy as part of a force at the invitation of a newly sovereign nation, much the way U.S. troops ship out to Germany or Japan.
Seitz countered that the Security Council never authorized the use of force, as it had in Afghanistan, and that the Iraq government is anything but independent.
In any case, the military judges have made it clear that they will not consider war-legality arguments at Watada's court-martial, now set for round two on July 16. Those arguments will likely be fodder for subsequent appeals to the federal courts.
Meanwhile, Seitz insists that double jeopardy protection should prevent the Army from reopening the case.
"If it's going badly for the prosecutor, the prosecutor can't abort the case and then start over," he says. "Nor can a judge abort the case for the prosecutor because the judge thinks it's going badly. When you have a mistrial in a criminal case, you always have a double jeopardy issue because jeopardy has attached as soon as the jury has been sworn in or the first witness testifies. And then you try and figure out whether by conduct or by some statement the defendant has caused the mistrial."
But it was the prosecutors who requested a mistrial when confusion arose over what facts had been agreed to.
"I'm thinking to myself, 'My God, this is a defense's lawyer's dream!'" Seitz remembers. "We didn't create this mistrial, we didn't agree to it, we didn't approve it. Jeopardy is attached. And I don't think either the judge or the military lawyers had any inkling that that was going to be the bottom line."
If Seitz is right, the other ruminations are moot.