National Lawyers Guild
The National Lawyers Guild (NLG) is a public interest association of lawyers, law students, paralegals, jailhouse lawyers, law collective members, and other activist legal workers, in the United States. The group was founded in 1937 as an alternative to the American Bar Association (ABA) in protest of that organization's exclusionary membership practices and conservative political orientation. They were the first US bar association to allow the admission of minorities to their ranks.
The group declares itself to be "dedicated to the need for basic and progressive change in the structure of our political and economic system . . . to the end that human rights shall be regarded as more sacred than property interests."
The National Lawyers Guild was founded in Washington, D.C. at a convention held from February 19-22, 1937 at the Hotel Washington. Individuals particularly instrumental in the creation of the organization included Harold I. Cammer and George Wagman Fish, among others. Other founding members included Frank P. Walsh, Albert Wald, Morris Ernst, Jerome Frank, as well as the general counsels of the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations. The first Executive Secretary of the organization was Mortimer Riemer.
According to Victor Rabinowitz, head of the NLG in the 1960s, the original membership of the organization came from two camps — established liberal attorneys with a labor-oriented perspective and "a militant segment of the bar, mostly young and sometimes radical."
Contrary to some right-wing thought, the NLG was not sponsored by or related to the Communist Party, although in the 1930s a significant number of NLG founders had been members or fellow travelers of the Communist Party USA, including Executive Secretary Riemer and Joseph Brodsky of the CP's International Labor Defense auxiliary.
The National Lawyers Guild was the nation's first racially integrated bar association. Among the NLG's first causes was its support of President Roosevelt's New Deal, which was opposed by the American Bar Association (ABA). NLG assisted the emerging labor movement, and opposed the racial segregation policies in the ABA and in society in general.
During the McCarthy era, the NLG was alleged by Attorney General Herbert Brownell Jr. and by the House Un-American Activities Committee to be a Communist front organization. Federal Bureau of Investigation director J. Edgar Hoover repeatedly tried to get successive Attorneys General to declare the NLG a "subversive organization," but without success.
On June 9, 1954, on the 30th day of the Army-McCarthy Hearings, McCarthy launched an attack against Fred Fisher (a junior attorney working at the same law firm as the Army's attorney, Joseph Welch) for having associated with the NLG while in law school. The attack provoked an impassioned response on the part of Welch, who angrily rebuked McCarthy with his famous plea, "You've done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?" Welch's speech was widely viewed as having undermined McCarthy's credibility and, coupled with an earlier March 1954 exposé by Edward R. Murrow, led to a major shift in public opinion against McCarthy.
The NLG was also involved in the American Civil Rights Movement from an early date, organizing a 1947 conference on the subject of lynching. This continued into the 1960s with the creation of the Guild's Committee for Legal Assistance. This era also saw NLG involvement in anti-war (including draft resistance) and anti-poverty efforts.
Past guild presidents have included Marjorie Cohn (a law professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law and author), Dobby Walker (the first female President of the NLG, first serving in 1970 and member of the 1972 "Dream Team" that successfully defended Angela Davis using innovative litigation techniques that are now commonplace).
The first journal of the NLG was the National Lawyers Guild Quarterly, first issued in December 1937 and terminated in July 1940. This was succeeded in October 1940 by a new quarterly called Lawyers Guild Review, which was published continuously through 1960. The publication's editorial office was moved to Los Angeles and its name was briefly changed from 1961 through 1964 to Law in Transition, followed by a final change in 1965 to Guild Practitioner.
Membership and structure
Full membership in the NLG is open to lawyers, law students, legal workers (including legal secretaries, legal investigators, paralegals, law collective members, and jailhouse lawyers). Prior to the 1972 NLG National Convention, held in Boulder, Colorado, membership was only open to lawyers. Members now include labor organizers, tribal sovereignty activists, civil liberties advocates, civil rights advocates, environmentalists, G.I. rights counselors, and many other progressive cause advocates involved in some aspect of legal work. Many law collectives have been involved with the NLG.
As of 2003, the NLG consisted of 42 local chapters grouped in 9 geographic regions.
Program and committees
The NLG web site lists the following aims:
- to eliminate racism;
- to safeguard and strengthen the rights of workers, women, farmers and minority groups, upon whom the welfare of the entire nation depends;
- to maintain and protect our civil rights and liberties in the face of persistent attacks upon them;
- to use the law as an instrument for the protection of the people, rather than for their repression.
The NLG has historically been noted for its championing of progressive and left-wing causes.
Currently, the NLG opposes the PATRIOT Act, corporate globalization, the World Trade Organization, and has called for the adoption of "the Plan of Action from the 2001 UN World Conference Against Racism, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance." The NLG also helps to train and provide legal observers for political demonstrations. The NLG has supported Palestinian rights and a number of other causes. In November 2007, the NLG passed a resolution calling for the impeachment of then President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney.
Most of the work of the Guild is done by committees, project and task forces. These include
In 2011 lawyers associated with the NLG became involved in the Occupy movement in the United States, making use of temporary restraining orders on behalf of encamped activists in an effort to forestall the forced dispersal of their sites by law enforcement. Charging that the Occupy movement was the subject of a "coordinated national crackdown," NLG lawyers filed actions in Boston, New York City, San Diego, Fort Myers, Atlanta, and other cities seeking the temporary prohibition of site removal efforts.
The NLG is a dues-paying membership organization, with income-based sliding scale rates ranging from $15 to $500 per annum used in 2011. Various specific projects have also received funding from the Open Society Institute, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the New World Foundation, and other funders.
From its earliest days the National Lawyers Guild has been the focus of controversy and criticism, primarily from conservatives but also from a certain number of centrists and anti-communist liberals.
In 1944 the Special House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) chaired by Texas Congressman Martin Dies Jr. published a brief history of the NLG in its massive and controversial "Appendix — Part IX" cataloging so-called "Communist Front Organizations" and their supporters. This report charged that the NLG, despite being promoted as a "professional organization of liberal lawyers" had proven itself by its actions to be "just one more highly deceptive Communist-operated front organization, primarily intended to serve the interests of the Communist Party of the United States..."
The 1944 HUAC history asserted that the NLG was merely "a streamlined edition of the International Juridicial Organization," a Communist Party mass organization established in 1931. The document charged that "the National Lawyers Guild has faithfully followed the line of the Communist Party on numerous issues and has proven itself an important bulwark in defense of that party, its members, and organizations under its control." Particularly damning in HUAC's eyes was the NLG's reversal of position on the war in Europe after the June 22, 1941 invasion of the Soviet Union by the forces of Nazi Germany, with an October resolution by the previously anti-war organization offering "unlimited support to all measures necessary to the defeat of Hitlerism" and supporting the Roosevelt administration's policy of "'all out aid' and full collaboration with Great Britain, the Soviet Union, China, and other nations resisting Fascist aggression."
The Guild was singled out again in a 1950 publication of the now permanent House Un-American Activities Committee entitled Report on the National Lawyers Guild: Legal Bulwark of the Communist Party. This document accused the NLG of playing a part in "an overall Communist strategy aimed at weakening our nation’s defenses against the international Communist conspiracy." The report advocated that Guild members be barred from federal employment in light of the organization's "subversive" character.
In 2003, a controversy arose around the case of NLG member attorney Lynne Stewart, who was charged with charges of conspiracy and providing material support to terrorists for providing communication from prison for Omar Abdel-Rahman, her former client and mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombings. Stewart was ultimately convicted of the charges and initially sentenced to 28 months in federal prison, though her sentence was subsequently increased to 10 years for perjury connected to the case. The NLG and other groups have steadfastly supported Stewart, condemning the charges and the conviction. NLG Attorney Elaine Cassel stated that "Stewart never provided any financial support, weaponry — or any other concrete aid — for any act of terrorism. No act of terrorism is alleged to have resulted from her actions."
- Peter Erlinder, "National Lawyers Guild: History," National Lawyers Guild, www.nlg.org/
- Special Committee on Un-American Activities, House of Representative, Investigation of Un-American Propaganda Activities in the United States: Appendix — Part IX: Communist Front Organizations, with Special Reference to the National Citizens Political Action Committee: Second Section. Washington, DC: United States Government Printing Office, 1944; pg. 1267.
- Lobel, pg. 2; Swidler and Henderson, pg. 243.
- Keri A. Myers and Jan Hilley"Guide to the National Lawyers Guild Records: Historical/Biographical Note," Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, Bobst Library, New York University, New York City.
- Mark Decker, "A Lot Depends..." in Harold Bloom (ed.), "Richard Wright's Native Son. Langhorne, PA: Chelsea House, 1998; pg. 180.
- Victor Rabinowitz, quoted in Decker, "A Lot Depends...", pg. 180.
- Harvey Klehr, The Heyday of American Communism: The Depression Decade. New York: Basic Books, 1984; pg. 379.
- Peter H. Irons, Justice at War: The Story of the Japanese American Internment Cases, New York: Oxford University Press, 1983; pp. 180-181.
- Heard, p. 159; Finan, p. 223; Dyzenhaus, Moreau, and Ripstein, p. 711.
- "In 1950 the House Un-American Activities Committee issued a report denouncing the Guild as 'the foremost legal bulwark of the Communist Party,' and in 1953 Attorney-General Herbert Brownell attacked the Guild as 'the legal mouthpiece of the Communist Party.'"Michael Powell, "Anatomy of a Counter-Bar Association: The Chicago Council of Lawyers," Law and Social Inquiry, vol. 4, no. 3, pg. 503
- Ellen Schrecker, Many Are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America. New York: Little, Brown, 1998; pg. 224.
- "Harvard Law School Video Archives," www.law.harvard.edu/
- National Lawyers Guild Quarterly, Washington, DC: The Guild, 1937-40. OCLC WorldCat number 1759280.
- Lawyers Guild Review, Washington, DC: National Lawyers Guild, 1940-1960. ISSN number 0734-1598.
- Law in Transition, Los Angeles: National Lawyers Guild, 1961-1963. ISSN number 0734-158X.
- "Military Law Task Force of the National Lawyers Guild: About," National Lawyers Guild, nlgmltf.org/
- Jesse Rigsby, "NLG: The Legal Fifth Column," Front Page Magazine," April 25, 2003.
- "Board and Staff | National Lawyers Guild". Retrieved 17 January 2013.
- David Margolick, "The Law: At the Bar," New York Times, December 11, 1987.
- James M. Leas, "National Lawyers Guild Backs Impeachment," Media With Conscience, November 27, 2007.
- "Committees," www.nlg.org/
- NLG International Committee website, www.nlginternational.org/
- NLG-IC Africa Subcommittee Website, nlginternational.org/
- NLG-IC Cuba Subcommittee website, nlginternational.org/
- NLG-IC Free Palestine Subcommittee website, nlginternational.org/
- NLG-IC Haiti Subcommittee website, nlginternational.org/
- NLG-IC International Labor Justice working group website, nlginternational.org/
- NLG-IC Korean Peace Project website, nlginternational.org/
- NLG-IC Philippines Subcommittee website, nlginternational.org/
- NLG-IC Task Force on the Americas website, nlginternational.org/
- NLG-IC United Nations Subcommittee website, nlginternational.org/
- Military Law Task Force website, www.nlgmltf.org/
- NLG National Immigration Project, www.nationalimmigrationproject.org/
- Nathan Tempey, "NLG Challenges Occupy Crackdowns," National Lawyers Guild, November 22, 2011.
- "Join and Renew," National Lawyers Guild, www.nlg.org/ Retrieved December 2, 2011.
- See: Special Committee on Un-American Activities, House of Representative, Investigation of Un-American Propaganda Activities in the United States: Appendix — Part IX: Communist Front Organizations, with Special Reference to the National Citizens Political Action Committee: Second Section. Washington, DC: United States Government Printing Office, 1944; pp. 1267 to 1276.
- Special Committee on Un-American Activities, Appendix — Part IX, pg. 1268.
- Special Committee on Un-American Activities, Appendix — Part IX, pg. 1269.
- Special Committee on Un-American Activities, Appendix — Part IX, pg. 1273.
- Quoted in Ann Fagan Ginger and Eugene M. Tobin (eds.), The National Lawyers Guild: From Roosevelt through Reagan. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1988; pg. 117.
- "Superseding Indictment Adds New Charges Against Ahmed Abdel Sattar, Lynne Steward, and Mohammed Yousry," United States Department of Justice, 2003.
- Tim Phillips, "Happy Birthday to Former Movement Lawyer Lynne Stewart", Activist Defense, October 8, 2012.
- "National Lawyers Guild Condemns Verdict In Lynne Stewart Trial," National Lawyers Guild, November 19, 2009.
- Elaine Cassel, "The Lynne Stewart Guilty Verdict: Stretching the Definition of 'Terrorism' To Its Limits," FindLaw, 2005.
- Dyzenhaus, David; Moreau, Sophia Reibetanz; and Ripstein, Arthur. Law and Morality: Readings in Legal Philosophy. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007.
- Finan, Christopher M. From the Palmer Raids to the Patriot Act: A History of the Fight for Free Speech in America. Boston: Beacon Press, 2007.
- Ann Fagan Ginger and Eugene M. Tobin (eds.), The National Lawyers Guild: From Roosevelt Through Reagan. Foreword by Ramsey Clark. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1988.
- Heard, Alex. The Eyes of Willie McGee: A Tragedy of Race, Sex, and Secrets in the Jim Crow South. New York: Harper, 2010.
- House Un-American Activities Committee, Report on the National Lawyers Guild: Legal Bulwark of the Communist Party. House Report No. 3123. Washington, DC: Committee on Un-American Activities, House of Representatives, 1950.
- Lobel, Jules. Success Without Victory: Lost Legal Battles and the Long Road to Justice in America. New York: New York University Press, 2003.
- Swidler, Joseph Charles and Henderson, A. Scott. Power and the Public Interest: The Memoirs of Joseph C. Swidler. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2002.
- National Lawyers Guild website, www.nlg.org/
- Finding Aid for the Archives of the National Lawyers Guild Records, Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Archives, Bobst Library, New York University, New York City.
- Preliminary Inventory of the National Lawyers Guild Records, 1936-1999 at The Bancroft Library