New Hastings prof a hero to Holocaust claimants

Morris Ratner practiced law at a top San Francisco firm, taught at Harvard Law School and recently joined the faculty of San Francisco’s U.C. Hastings College of Law.

Those curriculum vitae bullet points pale in comparison to Ratner’s signal achievement: leading the legal charge against Swiss, German, Austrian and French entities in securing an $8 billion settlement for Holocaust survivors.

The effort took years, starting in the mid-1990s, but his experience battling foreign banks, insurance companies and governments on behalf of victims made him a better lawyer. And, he believes, a better human being.

“That’s how I got into teaching,” Ratner said in a recent interview. “The law and civil procedure can be used to advance what seems like a hopeless cause. Of all the things that seem hopeless is the claim of a Holocaust victim 50 years afterwards in a U.S. court. Yet it was not hopeless.”

Morris Ratner

Though thousands of Jewish Holocaust survivors have won legal claims against Germany over the years, Ratner says his clients were unique. Many were young children during the war, and had little or no knowledge of their family’s former assets. They knew only that the Nazis had stolen everything — but had no idea of how to pursue a case or from whom to seek retribution.

Ratner and his legal team had to navigate uncertain legal waters, given that several nations, each with its own legal system, were involved. Filing suit in American courts only made the process more complicated.

Yet he won, thanks in part to invoking a musty 18th century statute that, Ratner said, provided the “jurisdictional hook.”

“It’s the Alien Tort Claims Act,” he recounted. “It allows foreign nationals to sue foreign entities in the United States for violations of basic international law. Every country prohibits the kind of conduct we described in our complaints.”

Ratner believes he would face tougher legal sledding were he to pursue this strategy today. He said the Supreme Court has become more hostile to such suits, something he calls “an attack on the scope of this one statute that provides a unique remedy in the world.”

Being Jewish, Ratner couldn’t help taking the Holocaust victims’ class action suit personally.

He grew up in the San Jose area, the great-grandson of Mayer Hirsch, an Orthodox rabbi who served San Francisco’s Congregation Anshey Sfard during the Prohibition era.

Growing up, Ratner attended San Jose’s Temple Emanu-El and was active in B’nai B’rith before heading off to Stanford University (where he earned a B.A. in economics in 1988) and then to Harvard Law School.

He specialized in complex litigation, with an emphasis on mass torts and other aggregate legal actions. He spent the bulk of his litigation career as a class action lawyer with the S.F.-based firm Lieff, Cabraser, Heimann and Bernstein.

His tenure there included his suits on behalf of Holocaust victims, though he also took on cases dealing with slave labor, including sex slavery.

Ratner taught at Harvard for two years before joining Hastings this current academic year. He’s glad to be back in the Bay Area, and especially glad to be at Hastings, where he teaches civil procedure.

So glad, he says he doesn’t miss the rough-and-tumble of the courtroom. In fact, he said, the classroom gets plenty heated as it is.

“Because we use the Socratic method, I interact with students in an intense teaching style,” he said. “It replicates the experience of the courtroom, and I get to be like the judge, which is fun.”

He also feels today’s law students overall have more of an altruistic streak then did his peers when he was in law school.

“A much higher percentage of students seems interested in going out in the world to do positive things,” Ratner said. “Government work, public interest work. They seem more diverse and more focused on public interest.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.