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The Brennan Center For Justice: Carrying On The Fight

Wednesday, August 27, 2003

  • By: Scott Schell
  • Organization: The Metropolitan Corporate Counsel
The Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, named after the late Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan, Jr., is a social justice organization that is part public interest law firm, part think tank, and part public education resource.

The Brennan Center is no static memorial to the Justice. At the Center's
opening in 1995, the Justice warned that he did not want the Center to give special deference to his opinions or specific views. Rather, he preferred that its founders establish a place that would take its cue from the singular Brennan spirit of asking the hard questions, defying common wisdom, and building unlikely coalitions around practical solutions. Its initiatives are reflective of the image of the rich and inclusive democracy the Justice envisioned.

The Center's founders - the Justice's family, his former clerks, and leaders at New York University - honored that vision. Helping to lead this effort was Clyde A. Szuch, a former Brennan clerk who is now a retired partner at Pitney, Hardin, Kipp & Szuch. He was a founding member and continues to serve on the Center's Board.

Pitney Hardin, one of the oldest and largest law firms in New Jersey, shares a long history with the Center: Justice Brennan was a litigation partner at the firm, and the firm has long been a significant financial supporter of the Center's work.

Today, the Center is carrying on the tradition of the Center's founders, by working to reform law and policy through the courts, through legislative advocacy, and through public education. What began with a staff of two has grown into an 8-year-old organization with a staff of 40.

The Center continues to work towards project goals and develop new ones, and as of September, it will do so under a new leader. In the fall, Tom Gerety will take the helm as the new Executive Director of the Center. Gerety, the former president of Amherst College who is also a former law professor, will lead the Center into its next stage of growth. "It's a great time to join in this good work," he says. "Now more than ever, when faced with external threats, the American republic has always had to struggle to maintain a democracy that is open and energetic, reflecting the diverse voices and interests of our nation."

The following describes how the Center works, its current initiatives, and snapshots of specific projects.

Current Projects

The Center engages in three programs: Criminal Justice, Democracy, and Poverty. Its initiatives include expanding access to good jobs for working families by supporting initiatives such as living wage laws; removing voting bans to enable ex-offenders to participate in the democratic process; ensuring that community voices are heard in policymaking affecting the criminal justice system; supporting campaign finance reform to control the influence of money on politics; and strengthening civil legal aid to increase access to justice for low-income individuals and families.

In each case, the Center is committed to changing law and policy through the use of three tools: litigation, legislative advocacy, and public education.

The Campaign Finance Reform Project is one of the Center's flagship efforts, and illustrates how the Center uses these three tools to push for reform. The Center is proud to have been among the key forces for passage of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (BCRA - commonly known as the McCain-Feingold bill). Signed into law by the President in March, BCRA "was the single most important campaign finance victory in 25 years," says Deborah Goldberg, the Director of
the Democracy Program. The Center helped its partners, including Senate and House sponsors on both sides of the aisle, to pass the legislation by providing original research, cutting-edge legal analysis, and compelling public education materials.

The fight continues; the Center is working with law firm and non-profit
co-counsel to defend BCRA against a constitutional challenge, representing six Members of Congress who were instrumental in moving the legislation and who have intervened to help defend the law. The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in the case this September.

While each project relies on a three-pronged approach to reform, the
following illustrate specific tactics of each approach.

Litigation

In 12 states, people with past felony convictions forever lose the right to vote - even after serving their time and rejoining society. In Florida, the Center and co-counsel are challenging a law that bars 600,000 citizens from the voting booth for life. The Center's appeal from an adverse trial court decision includes unexpected allies: more than a dozen former law enforcement officers and senior U.S. Department of Justice officials filed an amicus brief in support of the Center's brief. In April, a three-judge appellate panel of the 11th Circuit in Miami heard arguments in Johnson v. Bush.

Jessie Allen, Associate Counsel in the Center's Democracy Program, argued for the plaintiffs that the law is unconstitutional and that the
disenfranchisement is racially skewed. Says Allen, "This is a law passed after the Civil War to deplete blacks' political power, and it continues to carry out that discriminatory purpose." In fact, the law denies more than 10 percent of Florida's black residents the right to vote, a rate twice that of whites. At press time, the three-judge panel had not yet ruled. The Center continues to fight the law through coalition-building and public education.

Legislative Advocacy

Due to Gingrich-era restrictions on the type of work that civil legal aid
lawyers can do, "millions of low-income families must go it alone when fighting eviction, defending against consumer abuse, proving eligibility for subsistence benefits, and seeking justice in a variety of other legal settings," says David Udell, the Director of the Poverty Program.

"There are signs of change," Mr. Udell explains. The Brennan Center won a 2001 Supreme Court decision on behalf of legal aid clients that struck down a law barring legal aid lawyers from challenging welfare laws. Since then, the Center has continued to fight to remove restrictions on civil legal aid. Efforts to gain the support of allies in the legal aid community, philanthropic community, and others have built a broad and strong coalition that will work to push Congress to change the law. The Center also continues to fight the restrictions through litigation and through education on the issue.

Public Education

Criminal Justice Program is working to convince the Census Bureau to change the way it counts prisoners. Currently, census officials count prison inmates from poor city neighborhoods as rural residents of their prison town, which distorts population figures that will influence voting apportionment and funding decisions.

"This counting method unfairly punishes urban communities that lose large segments of their populations to prisons," says Kirsten Levingston, the Director of the Criminal Justice Program. The Center's Census project, she says, will show that this counting method is wrong as a matter of justice, as a matter of policy, and as a matter of law. The Program is currently building a coalition of progressive groups interested in joining forces to fix the problem. If public education alone is not enough to change the law, the Center will explore reform through the courts and through legislative advocacy.

The Three-Tool Approach

The Campaign Finance Reform project is just one example of the three-tool approach. The Center's living wage project also illustrates the power of using more than one approach to reforming law and policy. Since 1994, close to 100 cities and counties around the nation have adopted living wage laws to help hardworking, low-income families make ends meet. As legal and policy counsel to the movement, the Center helps reform coalitions and local lawmakers across the nation develop living wage policies tailored to local needs. The Center designs and drafts legislation, conducts legal assessments, prepares reports analyzing the economic impact of proposals, and if necessary, defends living wage policies against legal attack.

The movement is gaining momentum. Recently, community organizers obtained enough signatures to put a broad living wage bill on the November ballot in San Francisco. If approved by voters this November, San Francisco will join Santa Fe and Washington, D.C. as the nation's third city with a wage ordinance applying to all businesses in the city.

"What we are seeing is the next wave of the living wage movement as more cities extend their wage ordinances to cover private sector businesses," says Brennan Center associate counsel Paul Sonn. "It is an attractive option because these broader wage laws offer a way to help more struggling families but do not involve new costs for cash-strapped city budgets."

A New Leader

Mr. Gerety is well suited to carry on Justice Brennan's legacy through the Center's work. He has a background that blends academic scholarship with progressive values. At Amherst, he improved the diversity of the college's student body so that now approximately 35 percent of the first-year class is composed of students of color. In the past year, he organized private colleges in a "friend of the court" brief supporting the affirmative action policies of the University of Michigan. Mr. Gerety continued to teach as a professor of philosophy throughout his presidency, including a first-year seminar called "Inner City America" in which he asked students to work at social service agencies.

Before joining Amherst, Mr. Gerety was president of Trinity College, a
liberal arts college located in Hartford Connecticut's inner city. While there, he laid the groundwork for magnet schools and other city/suburban collaborations that Trinity maintains today. For three years he was the Dean of the College of Law at the University of Cincinnati. In addition to his new role as Executive Director at the Center, Mr. Gerety will be the Brennan Center for Justice Professor at NYU.

Mr. Gerety and others are convinced that change can bring opportunity. He points to the prescient words of Justice Brennan. At the founding of the Center, he wrote: "I look forward to watching the Brennan Center provide us with much needed momentum down the path on the journey we all started together. The gift you have given me is the knowledge and security that our destination will be reached, for I know that the Brennan Center will be an astounding success."

Pitney Hardin, where Justice Brennan was once was a partner, was pleased last year to make a $ 100,000 gift to the Brennan Center to help celebrate the firm's 100-year anniversary. Today the firm has nearly 200 attorneys and its services encompass a number of emerging specialties and virtually all of the traditional areas of civil law. Anthony J. Marchetta, a Pitney Hardin partner, presented the check on behalf of the firm to John Sexton, President of New York University and former Dean of the NYU Law School, who accepted for the Brennan Center.

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