The National Lawyers Guild (NLG) was founded in 1937 as an association of progressive lawyers and jurists who believed that they had a major role to play in the reconstruction of legal values to emphasize human rights over property rights. The Guild is the oldest and most extensive network of public interest and human rights activists working within the legal system.
The Early Years
In the 1930s, Guild lawyers helped organize the United Auto Workers (UAW) and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) and supported the New Deal in the face of determined American Bar Association opposition. In the 1940s, Guild lawyers fought against fascists in the Spanish Civil War and World War II and helped prosecute Nazis at Nuremberg. Guild lawyers fought racial discrimination in cases such as Hansberry v. Lee, the case that struck down segregationist Jim Crow laws in Chicago. The Guild was one of the nongovernmental organizations selected by the U.S. government to officially represent the American people at the founding of the United Nations in 1945. Members helped draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and founded one of the first UN-accredited human rights NGOs in 1948, the International Association of Democratic Lawyers (IADL).
Civil Rights and the Anti-War Movement
In the 1960s, the Guild set up offices in the South and organized thousands of volunteer lawyers and law students to support the civil rights movement long before the federal government or other bar associations were involved. Guild members represented the families of murdered civil rights activists Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman, who had heeded the Guild’s call to join the civil rights struggle and were assassinated by local law enforcement/Ku Klux Klan members. Lawsuits initiated by the National Lawyers Guild brought the Kennedy Justice Department directly into the civil rights struggle in Mississippi and challenged the seating of the all-white Mississippi delegation at the 1964 Democratic Convention. Guild lawyers defended thousands of civil rights activists who were arrested for exercising basic rights and established new federal constitutional protections in ground-breaking Supreme Court cases such as Dombrowski v. Pfister, which enjoined thousands of racially motivated state court criminal prosecutions; Goldberg v. Kelly, the case that established the concept of “entitlements” to social benefits that require Due Process protections; and Monell v. Department of Social Services, which held municipalities liable for brutal police officers.
The NLG supported self-determination for Palestine, opposed apartheid in South Africa at a time when the U.S. Government still labeled Nelson Mandela a “terrorist,” and began the ongoing fight against the blockade of Cuba. During this period, members founded other important civil rights and human rights institutions, such as the Center Constitutional Rights, the National Conference of Black Lawyers, the Meiklejohn Civil Liberties Institute in Berkeley, San Francisco’s New College School of Law and the Peoples Law School in Los Angeles.
In the 1980s, the Guild pioneered the “necessity defense,” supported the antinuclear movement, and began challenging the use of nuclear weapons under international law. This eventually resulted in the World Court declaration that nuclear weapons violate international law in a case argued by Guild lawyers more than a decade later. Spurred by the need to represent Central American refugees and asylum activists fleeing U.S. sponsored “terror” in Nicaragua and El Salvador, the Guild’s National Immigration Project began working systematically on immigration issues. Legal theories for holding foreign human rights violators accountable in U.S. courts, based on early 19th century federal statutes, were pioneered by Guild lawyers. The Guild organized “People’s Tribunals” to expose the illegality of U.S. intervention in Central America that became even more widely known as the “Iran-Contra” scandal. The NLG Center for Social and Economic Justice was established in Detroit, and the Guild published the first major work on sexual orientation and the law, as well as the first legal practice manual on the HIV/AIDS crisis.
The Lawsuit Against the FBI
In 1989, the Guild prevailed in a lawsuit against the FBI for illegal political surveillance of legal activist organizations, including the Guild. The suit, which had been filed in 1977, revealed the extent to which the government had been spying on the NLG. Since 1941, the FBI used over 1,000 informants to report on NLG activities and disrupt Guild meetings and conferences. Informants sat on the policy-making bodies of chapters and the national organization. FBI agents broke into the National Office and into private law offices of key NLG members. The bureau released derogatory and misleading information about the Guild to judges, the press and the public. Under the 1989 settlement, the FBI turned over copies of roughly 400,000 pages of its files on the Guild, which are now available at the Tamiment Library at New York University.
Globalization and the 1990s
In the 1990s, Guild members mobilized opposition to the Gulf War, defended the rights of Haitian refugees escaping from a U.S.-sponsored dictatorship, opposed the U.S. embargo of Cuba, and began to define a new civil rights agenda that includes the right to employment, education, housing, and health care. As a founding UN-NGO, the Guild participated in the 50th anniversary of the UN and Guild members authored the first reports that detailed U.S. violations of international human rights standards regarding the death penalty, racism, police brutality, AIDS discrimination, and economic rights. The Guild initiated the National Coalition to Protect Political Freedom (NCPPF) to focus opposition to “secret evidence” deportations and attacks on First Amendment rights after passage of the 1996 Anti-Terrorism Act and established the NLG National Police Accountability Project to address the issue of widespread police violence. Guild lawyers won the first case in the World Court that declared the use of nuclear weapons a violation of international law.
The Guild began analyzing of the impact of globalization on human rights and the environment long before the Seattle demonstrations, and played an active role in opposing NAFTA and in facilitating and supporting the growing movement for globalization of justice. As the 20th century came to a close, the Guild was defending environmental and labor rights activists and critics of globalization from Seattle to D.C. to L.A. Guild members were playing an active role in encouraging cross-border labor organizing and in exposing the abuses in the maquiladoras on the U.S.-Mexico Border. The Committee on Corporations, the Constitution and Human Rights focuses specifically on “globalization” issues.
Today and Tomorrow
At the dawn of the 21st century, the globalization of information and economic activity is a fact of life, but so is the globalization of extremes in wealth and poverty. The U.S. population faces trends that will require a vast restructuring of our entire society if we are to avoid the social chaos that is already overtaking life in our major cities, or the militarized imposition of social peace that we see in other unstable societies and that is embodied in post-9/11 laws and policies. Guild members have long recognized that neither democracy nor social justice is possible, internationally or domestically, in the face of vast disparities in individual and social wealth. In short, the organization has always seen questions of economic and social class as inextricably intertwined with most domestic and international justice issues.
Domestically, the betrayal of democracy and the Supreme Court’s integrity in Bush v. Gore has made it clear that the struggle for real democracy in the U.S. is far from over. The intertwining of governmental power with the influence of corporations, epitomized by Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, has confirmed that the theme of the 1998 NLG Convention, “Fighting Corporate Power,” may well be the major challenge for American democracy in the new century. The seizure of increased executive power, the huge buildup of military might, and the attack on civil liberties after the 9/11 tragedy, the scapegoating of Muslim Americans and of Middle Eastern and Arab immigrants, and the creation of McCarthy-esque “antiterrorism” measures have demonstrated that the Guild must once again play the role for which history and experience has prepared its members.
Guild members lobbied Congress and worked with the House Judiciary Committee in an unsuccessful effort to turn back the worst aspects of the 2001 USA PATRIOT Act. Guild members also filed the first challenges to the detention of prisoners from Afghanistan and the use of military tribunals. Across the nation Guild members are demanding that civil liberties be protected and that the U.S. Government respect the Constitution and international law at home and abroad. Guild members are defending activists, representing immigrants facing deportation, and testifying in federal and state legislatures against restrictions on civil liberties. They are using their experience and professional skills to help build the 21st-century grassroots movements that will be necessary to protect civil liberties and defend democracy in the future.
The purpose of the National Lawyers Guild is to serve the people, rather than public or private entities that do not put human needs first. By stating clearly that “human rights shall be held more sacred than property interests,” the NLG Preamble recognizes that economic and social needs should also be considered “rights” and that these rights often conflict with the interests of propertied elites in all nations. Adherence to these ideas resulted in charges of “subversion” during the anticommunist hysteria of the 1950s and 1960s. Today many of these same ideas are embodied in the United Nations International Declaration of Human Right and many international agreements to which the U.S. is (or should be) a party, and are being incorporated into 21st century constitutional theory and practice.
These same principles have informed the Guild’s approach to domestic legal, political, and social justice issues for over 70 years. These ideas have made possible the Guild’s existence as a multi-issue organization. Rather than focusing on narrow areas of professional practice, the National Lawyers Guild sees that a wide range of social, political, and legal issues, such as racism, sexism, homophobia, environmental destruction, immigrant-bashing, labor issues, and voting rights, are intertwined with questions of economic justice and cannot be solved through focus on specific “legal practice” issues, or through the legal system alone. As a result, in addition to belonging to other professional organizations with a specific practice or professional focus, Guild lawyers, nonlawyers, students, academics, legislators, jurists, and activists from a wide range of law-related work find ways to make common cause, through the National Lawyers Guild.