Founded in 1958 as a professional bar association, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) seeks “to ensure justice and due process for persons accused of crime.” This national organization currently has more than 12,800 members; its 92 state, local, and international affiliate groups are composed of an additional 35,000 members.
NACDL’s approach to criminal justice places great emphasis on the treatment and rehabilitation of offenders while focusing very little on punishment. Said the organization in early 2007: “[T]he past decade’s much-heralded ‘War on Drugs’ and crackdown on crime has become a war on ourselves. It has run roughshod over these and other essential rights that citizens across the nation hold dear. Equally important, a rational and humane crime policy must focus on the social and economic benefits of crime prevention — through education, economic opportunity, and rehabilitation of former offenders. As a society, we need to eschew such simplistic, expensive, and ineffective ‘solutions’ as inflexible mandatory sentencing, undue restriction of meritorious appeals, punishment of children as adults, and the erosion of the constitutional rights of all Americans because of the transgressions of a few.”
In 2003 NACDL held a vote on the ethics of defending detainees captured during military or intelligence operations related to the war on terror. Most specifically, the organization was concerned with the incarcerated enemy combatants in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. By a unanimous vote of its Board of Directors, NACDL declared it unethical for attorneys to represent such defendants in trials conducted by a military commission — not because NACDL is in any way reluctant to defend accused terrorists, but because it views military tribunals as forums that are inherently unfair to defendants. “Criminal defense lawyers are severely disadvantaged in their duties to represent their clients [in military tribunals],” says NACDL. “The loss of rights can only help insure [sic] unjust and unreliable convictions.”
In a November 2002 resolution, NACDL made clear its own philosophical and legal opposition to the concept of “unlawful enemy combatants” and urged the U.S. government to extend Constitutional protections to such individuals. Presently, Article IV of the Geneva Convention defines “lawful combatants” — who are entitled to prisoner-of-war status, Geneva Convention protections, and trial in a civilian court — as those combatants whose military organization meets four very specific criteria: (a) “that of being commanded by a person responsible for his subordinates; (b) that of having a fixed distinctive sign [a uniform or emblem] recognizable at a distance; (c) that of carrying arms openly; (d) that of conducting their operations in accordance with the laws and customs of war.” Those who fail to meet the foregoing criteria are considered “unlawful combatants,” are entitled to no Geneva Convention protections, and are subject to trial by military commission.
In January 2003 NACDL signed a Lawyers Committee for Human Rights brief declaring that Guantanamo detainees should be permitted to challenge the legality of their detention under the U.S. habeas corpus statute. Other signers of this brief included the American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the Islamic Circle of North America, the National Council of Churches, and the People for the American Way Foundation.
NACDL was a signatory to a March 17, 2003 letter exhorting members of the U.S. Congress “to oppose … ‘Patriot [Act] II'” on grounds that it “contain[ed] a multitude of new and sweeping law enforcement and intelligence gathering powers … that would severely dilute, if not undermine, many basic constitutional rights.”
NACDL objects to the manner in which the U.S. government gathers intelligence information. In December 2005 the organization declared that the “Terrorist Surveillance Program,” which authorized the National Security Agency to monitor communications between domestic and foreign parties suspected of terrorist activities, was unconstitutional. “Domestic clandestine surveillance is not a role for the military in a free society,” said NACDL. “It is contrary to established law, the Constitution, and our way of life.”
NACDL joined the American Civil Liberties Union, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, and Greenpeace in filing a 2006 lawsuit successfully challenging the constitutionality of the Bush administration’s program to monitor, without warrants, phone and email correspondences between terror suspects in the United States and abroad.
In July 2006 NACDL endorsed a report submitted to the UN Committee Against Torture. Titled “In the Shadows of the War on Terror: Persistent Police Brutality and Abuse in the U.S.,” the document criticized not only the treatment of criminal inmates in American prisons, but also of “unlawful combatants” being held in U.S. detention centers overseas. Other endorsers of this report included: the ACLU; the American Friends Service Committee; the Center for Constitutional Rights; the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights; National Organization for Women; and the Prison Moratorium Project.
In recent years, NACDL has drafted resolutions supporting voting rights for felons; calling for an end to the “War on Drugs”; and urging the abolition of the death penalty in the United States.
NACDL has filed a number of amicus curiae briefs on behalf of the self-proclaimed “radical activist attorney” Lynne Stewart, who in February 2005 was convicted of illegally helping her incarcerated client, the terrorist leader Omar Abdel Rahman, communicate with his Egypt-based Islamic Group.
NACDL has also spoken out in support of Leonard Peltier, a Chippewa Indian convicted of murdering two FBI agents in 1975. The organization has joined the following individuals and groups in demanding clemency for Peltier: Ed Asner, Harry Belafonte, Ward Churchill, Ramsey Clark, Angela Davis, Jane Fonda, Danny Glover, Jesse Jackson, Nelson Mandela, Rigoberta Menchu, Bonnie Raitt, Al Sharpton, Gloria Steinem, Oliver Stone, Amnesty International, the Center for Constitutional Rights, Global Exchange, the Institute for Policy Studies, the National Lawyers Guild, Veterans For Peace, and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.
Each year, NACDL presents its “Champion of Justice” award to “individuals who — through legislative, journalistic or humanitarian pursuits — have staunchly preserved or defended the constitutional rights of American citizens and have endeavored to ensure justice and due process for persons accused of crime.” The 2003 recipient of this award was Mexican President Vicente Fox, who was honored for his advocacy against the death penalty. Other NACDL honorees in recent years have included NAACP Chairman Julian Bond; Justice William J. Brennan, Jr.; Rep. John Conyers; actor, anti-death penalty, and anti-war activist Mike Farrell; Rep. Barney Frank; former columnist Bob Herbert; Center for Constitutional Rights co-founder Arthur Kinoy; anti-death penalty activist Sister Helen Prejean; U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno; and Rep. Patricia Schroeder.
The 1995 receipient of NACDL’s “Lifetime Achievement Award” was former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark, founder of the International Action Center, which is closely aligned with the Marxist-Leninist Workers World Party.
The President of NACDL is Carmen Hernandez, a Washington, D.C.-based attorney who co-chairs the organization’s Federal Sentencing Committee and is a member of the Practitioner’s Advisory Group of the U.S. Sentencing Commission. She currently represents Zvonko Busica, a former leader of a Croatian extremist group that hijacked a jetliner in 1976, detonating a bomb that killed a police officer.
In 2004 NACDL received a $100,000 grant for its Civilian Defense Counsel for Guantanamo Detainees from the JEHT Foundation.