- Works to undermine U.S. national security on constitutional grounds
- Aims to influence court decisions and public opinion on contentious constitutional and legal issues
- Has called for foreign detainees (including suspected terrorists) to be released on American soil
- Receives financial support from George Soros’s Open Society Institute
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.
Over the years, CP has collaborated on amicus briefs and other legal documents with such influential organizations as the Brennan Center for Justice (here), the Center for Constitutional Rights (here), Human Rights First (here), the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (here), and People for the American Way (here).
In November 2009, CP, along with Human Rights First, drafted a statement titled “Beyond Guantanamo” which called for the processing of all terror suspects in federal courts rather than in military tribunals. Signatories included members of the American Bar Association, the ACLU, the Century Foundation, the New America Foundation, September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, and several other groups.
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.”
- Data Collection and Privacy/Government Surveillance and Searches: According to CP, government anti-crime and anti-terrorism efforts commonly use new technologies in ways that fail to “safeguard constitutional rights and civil liberties.”
- 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 corpu_s, 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.
CP co-founders Virginia Sloan and Morton Halperin continue to serve on the organization’s board of directors. Among the noteworthy names on CP’s eight-member board of advisors are New Israel Fund board president Peter Edelman and George Mason University history professor Roger Wilkins.
Over the years, CP’s various Policy and Issue Committees have included such influential figures as Walter Cronkite, Joseph Onek, John Podesta, and Susan Rice, along with officials affiliated with the AFL-CIO, the Aspen Institute, the Brennan Center for Justice, the Brookings Institution, the Carter Center, the Center for American Progress; Human Rights First, the Migration Policy Institute, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the National Immigration Forum, the People for the American Way Foundation, and the Public Citizen Litigation Group.
George Soros‘s Open Society Institute has awarded grants annually to CP since at least 2000. CP has also received funding from such entities as the Educational Foundation of America, the Ford Foundation, the Nathan Cummings Foundation, the Public Welfare Foundation, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the Tides Foundation, and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.