Q&A: Jennifer R. Cowan

, New York Law Journal


Jennifer Cowan
Jennifer Cowan

Debevoise & Plimpton litigator Jennifer Cowan led a team of lawyers who used a novel argument to secure the release of Guantanamo Bay detainee Ibrahim Idris, who was reunited with his family in his native Sudan December 2013—nearly 12 years after he became one of the first suspected al Qaida fighters sent to Cuba.

In her petition for habeas corpus, Cowan did not address claims that Idris was an enemy combatant. Rather, she argued that he had to be released if he could not return to the battlefield. And she said the obese, diabetic and schizophrenic Idris was in no shape to face the U.S. in battle. The government dropped its opposition to Idris' release, and D.C. District Judge Royce Lambeth became the first judge in the district since 2010 to grant a detainee's habeas petition.

Debevoise took on five detainee clients, including Idris, in 2005. Firm lawyers joined as many as 500 lawyers and legal assistants handling cases pro bono.

Cowan, 43, a Columbia Law grad who is a counsel at Debevoise, said she initially didn't appreciate the difficulties she and her colleagues would face.

She said she has traveled to Guantanamo about 20 times. The military has become "resigned" to the lawyers' presence, she said, but is "certainly not accommodating." And communicating with Idris presented extra difficulties.

She worked on the case with Debevoise associates Rushmi Bhaskaran, Nwamaka Ejebe, Michael T. Leigh and J. Nicole Stankewicz.

One of Debevoise's detainee clients was released in December 2007 and another in December 2009. There are two remaining, both from Yemen. Cowan says she has been encouraged by the Obama administration's apparently revived commitment to close the detention center.

Meanwhile, she said, "I am committed to representing our remaining clients."

Q: Has many hours has Debevoise devoted to representing Guantanamo cases over the years?

A: We've represented detainees at Guantanamo since 2005, and over those eight-plus years, we've logged more than 25,000 hours in the representations.

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