Founded in 1997 by Virginia Sloan and Morton Halperin, the Constitution Project (CP) is a nonprofit organization that aims to influence court decisions and public opinion on contentious constitutional and legal issues. This is primarily done by way of reports, recommendations, amicus briefs, opinion articles, sponsored events (such as panel discussions), and “expert” opinions offered to the media and legislative committees. Much of CP’s work since September 11, 2001 has sought to challenge the legality of military commissions; end the detainment of foreign “enemy combatants” (a term whose meaning, according to CP, has become “overboad”); condemn U.S. government surveillance of terrorists; and limit the president's executive privileges.
Through its “Liberty and Security Committee,” CP has repeatedly argued on behalf of suspected terrorists whom it depicts as victims of American injustice. In 2002, for instance, the Project submitted an amicus brief for a case involving Khaled El-Masri, a violent German national with suspected ties to Islamic terrorist organizations. In another amicus brief that was filed in support of Osama bin Laden's bodyguard and chauffeur (Salim Ahmed Hamdan), CP argued that Hamdan’s habeas corpus rights had been unconstitutionally denied.
CP also filed several amicus briefs in support of the so-called “dirty bomber” Jose Padilla, an American Islamic convert with a violent history, who, according to CP, was being unlawfully detained by the U.S. government. Arguing on similar grounds in a 2009 amicus brief, CP petitioned for a group of Uighur detainees at Guantanamo Bay to be released onto American soil. In the 2010 Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals case Al-Haramain Islamic Foundation v. Obama, CP supported the plaintiffs who claimed that the U.S. government had illegally monitored them via wiretapping. In other cases, such as al-Odah v. United States (2002) and Boumediene v. Bush (2008), CP argued that it was illegal for the government to detain terror suspects because the evidence against them had been obtained through “torture.” CP visited this theme again in April 2013, when it published a 577-page report calling it “indisputable” that “the United States engaged in the practice of torture” following 9/11.
The key issues upon which CP currently focuses its activism are the following:
Checks and Balances: CP complains that “in recent years ... presidents from both political parties have usurped the powers traditionally reserved for the Congress.”
Counter-Terrorism Policies and Practices: Claiming that both the Bush and Obama administrations have “raised serious constitutional concerns” by failing to bring suspected terrorists to justicein a manner “consistent with our laws and values,” CP strives to help such suspects avoid indefinite detention, challenge the legality of their detention, and have their trials conducted in federal courts rather than military tribunals.
Criminal Discovery: CP seeks to “impose meaningful consequences” on prosecutors who, “in violation of their legal and ethical duties,” fail to “disclose [exculpatory] information to criminal defendants that could be helpful to them in their defense.”
Death Penalty: Capital-punishment sentencing, says CP, is fraught with inequities against poor people and nonwhites.
Right to Counsel: CP contends that many states and localities, by failing to abide by their constitutional requirement to provide criminal defendants with competent defense counsel, “undermin[e] the legitimacy of the criminal-justice system by creating two systems of justice—one for people with means, and an inferior system for the poor.”
Immigration: Charging that many of the post-9/11 “immigration initiatives and reforms” that the U.S. government enacted “in the name of national security” raise “serious constitutional concerns,” CP's Immigration and Liberty & Security Committees demand, on behalf of “non-citizens,” that the government respect “due process and habeas corpus, equal protection, and Fourth Amendment safeguards against illegal searches and seizures.” CP also seeks to prevent state authorities from enforcing federal immigration laws.
Sentencing: CP is “concerned by the explosion of new laws that 'criminalize' seemingly innocent conduct, even when the offender lacks the intent to break the law, as well as excessive sentences for relatively non-serious offenses.”
Transparency and Accountability: CP's Liberty & Security Committee calls for reforms in the “application of the state-secrets privilege” which “protects evidence from public disclosure if such disclosure would threaten national security.” By CP's reckoning, the George W. Bush administration invoked this privilege to excess.