Brennan Center for Justice (BCJ)

Brennan Center for Justice (BCJ)


* Leftist think tank and legal activist group
* Heavily bankrolled by George Soros’s Open Society Institute
* Supports campaign-finance reform, judicial activism, voting rights for felons, and living-wage laws
* Opposes voter ID laws
* Contends that the U.S. Constitution is a “living” document that must evolve over time
* Condemns the “persistent racial disparities” that pervade America’s criminal and civil legal systems
* Seeks to ban all “ethnic and religious profiling”

Located at the New York University School of Law, the Brennan Center for Justice (BCJ) describes itself as a “nonpartisan” entity—“part think tank, part public interest law firm, part advocacy group, part communications hub”—that aims to “improve our systems of democracy and justice” by instituting “bold policy reform,” a “shift [in] legal doctrine,” and “meaningful, measurable change in the systems by which our nation is governed.” To advance these agendas, the Center generates scholarly studies (written by its team of 25 experts), mounts media campaigns, devises and promotes legislative reforms, files amicus briefs, gives pro bono support to activists, and litigates test cases in court.

Woven throughout BCJ’s work is a commitment to carry on the work of its namesake, former Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan, Jr. (1906 -1997), a judicial activist who pioneered the modern practice of “legislating from the bench” and gave birth to the doctrine of a “living” Constitution whose relationship to the Founders’ document is constantly “evolving.” BCJ champions a “new constituional vision” that casts the U.S. Constitution not as an articulation of enduring principles, but as “a charter for a thriving [evolving] democracy” and a seed bed for “a compelling progressive jurisprudence for the 21st century.” The organization holds many public events that are centered on the Constitution, most notably a “Living Constitution” lecture series designed “to further understanding of the Constitution and its role in a changing world.”

BCJ’s work is divided among three major program areas:

1) The Democracy Program focuses on several key issues:

* Voting Rights & Elections: Fighting “to preserve and expand the right to vote for every eligible citizen,” BCJ vehemently opposes “harsh” voter ID laws on grounds that they allegedly discriminate against nonwhites and the poor. BCJ attorneys representing civil-rights groups have helped win court rulings to block the enactment of such laws in South Carolina and Texas. The Center’s widely cited November 2006 report, Citizens Without Proof, maintains that voter ID laws are wholly unnecessary because “fraud by individual voters is … extremely rare.” Even after an August 2011 Heritage Foundation study exposed the BCJ report’s deeply flawed methodology and insupportable conclusions, the Center persisted in claiming that voter fraud and voter impersonation are “nearly non-existent,” and that professed concerns about such transgressions are political red herrings designed only to advance “the largest, most coordinated attack on voting rights since the Jim Crow era.” For a more detailed discussion of the Heritage Foundation report, see Footnote #1 below.[1]

To achieve its goal of radical social change, BCJ aims to “flood the system with millions of new voters” by: (a) allowing people to become registered voters via the Internet, and then “ensur[ing] that every eligible voter is permanently registered”; (b) “creat[ing] more opportunities for Americans to vote” by mandating a minimum early-voting period; (c) imploring college students, who overwhelmingly support Democrats, to exercise their right to vote;[2] and (d) working to overturn laws that deny nearly 6 million convicted felons their “fundamental democratic right” to vote. Condemning these laws for their “disproportionate impact on minorities,” the Center characterizes them as “deeply rooted” relics of “our troubled racial history.”[3]

* Money and Politics: In the early 2000s, BCJ produced a considerable body of bogus research that, in the words of Weekly Standard editor David Tell, was “deliberately faked” to promote the notion that the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance-reform bill would place no undue restrictions on legitimate political speech. F

Today BCJ advocates a policy of “small donor public financing” whereby small individual donations are matched and multiplied in a five-to-one ratio by public funds, so as to “re-direct candidates’ attention from moneyed interests to ordinary citizens.” Moreover, the Center seeks to roll back the Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission Supreme Court decision, which struck down a ban on corporations and labor unions using money from their general funds to produce and air campaign ads in congressional and presidential races.

* Government & Court Reform: Maintaining that “white males are overrepresented” among appellate judges by a margin of nearly two-to-one—while “almost every other demographic group is underrepresented when compared to their share of the nation’s population”—BCJ claims that “a fair, independent bench” can be achieved only by increasing “judicial diversity.” The Center also calls for filibuster reform to “end government dysfunction and gridlock,” and supports a race- and ethnicity-conscious redistricting process to “ensure that [nonwhite] communities are fully represented in the legislature.”

2) The Justice Program advocates “rational” legal reforms to “fix” the “persistent racial disparities” that pervade America’s criminal and civil legal systems, as evidenced by the fact that blacks “are 13 percent of the U.S. population, but comprise 37 percent of the prison population.” One such proposal is to reduce “mass incarceration” by eliminating “the criminalization of minor behavior,” reforming “selective enforcement policies,” and instituting “a proportional system of punishment.” Further, the Center aims to close the “justice gap” that causes “eighty percent of low-income people [to] have trouble obtaining legal representation.”

3) The Liberty & National Security Program advocates national security policies that not only promote “increased public access to government information and sensible limits on the government’s access to citizen information,” but also unequivocally ban any form of “ethnic and religious profiling.” Condemning post-9/11 policies under which terrorism suspects can be “held without charge and denied their constitutional right to … habeas corpus,” BCJ has challenged the government’s military detention of “enemy combatants” within the United States (Al-Marri v. Wright) and of U.S. citizens overseas (Omar v. Harvey and Munaf v. Green). The Center has also submitted amicus briefs in several cases involving detainees at Guantánamo Bay, and opposes the practice of trying terror suspects in military tribunals because the latter “lack fundamental attributes of due process.”

BCJ’s board of directors is co-chaired by Patricia Bauman, who has also served in leadership roles with the Bauman Family Foundation, the Beldon Fund, Catalist, the Democracy Alliance, J Street, and the Natural Resources Defense Council. The other co-chair is Lawrence Pedowitz, who has been a partner at the New York-based law firm of Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz since 1980.

BCJ’s 30-member program advisory board features such notables as Alec Baldwin, Peter Edelman, and Arianna Huffington.

Numerous charitable foundations have given financial support to BCJ over the years, including the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Ford Foundation, the JEHT Foundation, the Joyce Foundation, the Mertz Gilmore Foundation, the Nathan Cummings Foundation, George Soros‘s Open Society Institute, the Pew Charitable Trusts, the Public Welfare Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Scherman Foundation. For a list of additional funders of BCJ, click here.


[1] The notion that voter fraud is an uncommon occurrence can be traced most significantly to BCJ’s Citizens Without Proof, which is most often cited for its widely circulated claim that about 25% of all African-Americans of voting age do not own a photo ID. But an August 2011 Heritage Foundation study exposed that report as being “dubious in its methodology and results, and suspect in its sweeping conclusions.” For example, Heritage noted that the Brennan Center had:

  • used biased questioning to obtain the results it wanted vis à vis minority voters;
  • based its report entirely on one survey of 987 “voting age American citizens,” but made no effort to determine whether the respondents were in fact citizens;
  • neglected to ask whether the respondents were actual voters, likely voters, registered voters, or even eligible to vote at all; and
  • failed to ask the respondents whether they had student or tribal ID cards, even though such cards are acceptable forms of Voter ID in some states.

Further, Heritage pointed out that the Brennan Center statistics were sharply at odds with the findings of previous studies on voter-identification documents. For example, a 2008 American University survey in Maryland, Indiana, and Mississippi found that fewer than one-half of 1 percent of registered voters lacked a government-issued ID. Similarly, a 2006 survey of more than 36,000 voters found that only “23 people in the entire sample—less than one-tenth of one percent of reported voters—were unable to vote because of an ID requirement.”

Heritage noted, moreover, that “every state that has passed a voter ID law has also ensured that the very small percentage of individuals who do not have a photo ID can easily obtain one for free if they cannot afford one.”

Lastly, the Heritage Foundation study identified footnotes within Citizens Without Proof that not only cast serious doubt on the results of the report, but actually contradict its major claims. For example:

  • Footnote 1 states that “the results of this survey were weighted to account for underrepresentation of race,” but nowhere is there an explanation of how this factor was weighted, making it impossible to determine the accuracy of the footnote’s claim.
  • Footnote 3 states that “135 respondents indicated that they had both a U.S. birth certificate and U.S. naturalization papers,” suggesting confusion on the part of the respondents.
  • And perhaps most significantly, Footnote 4 states plainly that “[t]he survey did not yield statistically significant results for differential rates of possession of citizenship documents by race, age, or other identified demographic factors.”

Notwithstanding the methodological flaws of the Brennan Center study, a host of left-wing groups and individuals have persisted in echoing its assertions.

[2] The Brennan Center created a guide to help students understand the different state laws and rules about how to register and vote.

[3] Nonwhite minorities, like college students, overwhelmingly support Democrats.

© Copyright 2024,