Inside NACDL: A New Era at NACDL: Bylaw Changes to Support the Criminal Defense Profession and Promo

When NACDL adopted a new strategic plan in 2018, it led to bylaw changes that reflect a new era for the national criminal defense bar.

Access to The Champion archive is one of many exclusive member benefits. It’s normally restricted to just NACDL members. However, this content, and others like it, is available to everyone in order to educate the public on why criminal justice reform is a necessity.

Let’s face it. Odds are that in most membership organizations, few things are less captivating that the occasional bylaw amendment. Usually hyper-technical in nature, generally of interest only to organizational insiders and about as scintillating as watching paint dry, a proposed amendment to an organization’s bylaws is hardly worth a yawn. But when NACDL marked its 60th anniversary this year with the adoption of a new strategic plan, it led to some pending bylaw changes that genuinely reflect a new era for the national criminal defense bar.

The proposed amendments were recommended for adoption by the NACDL Board of Directors on Oct. 27, 2018, at the Savannah meeting. At the upcoming Midwinter Membership Meeting in Phoenix, Arizona, on Feb. 16, 2019, NACDL members will be asked to ratify several amendments that truly should be of interest to NACDL’s evolving membership. As required, the proposed amendments are set forth with complete specificity at pages 14–19 in this issue of The Champion.1 Two of the amendments merit some plain English attention.

The first and most important revision is a modification of the Association’s mission. In language that was carefully crafted after months of input from countless internal and external stakeholders, including members, staff, leaders, and committee chairs, as well as other actors in the criminal justice system and the larger criminal justice advocacy community, the new mission statement encapsulates the new NACDL:

NACDL’s mission is to serve as a leader, alongside diverse coalitions, in identifying and reforming flaws and inequities in the criminal justice system, including systemic racism; and to equip the criminal defense bar to provide the highest quality representation to ensure justice and due process for persons accused of crime.

This is a bold, hopeful, and determined articulation of NACDL’s objectives. It commits NACDL to take the lead in calling out the myriad flaws and injustices that afflict the criminal justice system and to work to redress those deficiencies through partnerships with others who share that common purpose. The statement also unabashedly places NACDL on record as recognizing what all practicing criminal defense lawyers know from the first moment they walk into a criminal courtroom: systemic racism is real and must be confronted. But this new formulation of institutional purpose also firmly commits NACDL to taking the single most important step essential to promote justice. By pledging to equip the criminal defense bar with the resources and training necessary to ensure the highest caliber of representation for accused persons, the statement implicitly recognizes that justice, due process, and the elimination of inequities and systemic flaws must unfold on a case-by-case basis, through the skillful and effective representation of every client.

What does this mean in practical terms? It means that NACDL will promote reform on the national, state, and local levels of government, but will forever remain committed to the support of the criminal defense bar. For it is defense lawyers, challenging government overreach and abuse, and ardently advocating for their client’s individual rights and fundamental dignity that uniquely qualifies NACDL to lead national reform efforts and bear witness to systemic injustice. Further, it is the defense lawyer, fulfilling the mandate of the Sixth Amendment that all accused persons shall enjoy the right to counsel, who is obligated to stand up for the dignity of the individual, whether guilty or innocent, in every prosecution. For this reason, the mission statement is further refined by a revised vision statement in which NACDL’s overarching objective and purpose is crystalized:

The Association envisions a society where all individuals receive fair, rational, and humane treatment within the criminal justice system.

This is a hopeful and optimistic vision. To articulate an organizational objective of ensuring a society in which all individuals receive fair, rational, and humane treatment in the criminal justice system is as noble an undertaking as it is timely. The fundamental institutions that underlie a democratic form of government are never fully secure. For an organization that is comprised of criminal defense counsel, whose role as protectors of the individual against the government is constitutionally ordained, it is entirely fitting that NACDL should serve as a powerful voice for reform. Just as its members zealously defend each accused individual, so must the organization zealously advocate for a criminal justice system that fully respects the dignity, humanity, and fundamental rights of every person.

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Those who have worked long and hard to refine NACDL’s mission and vision have acted in the belief that the new formulation will resonate with members and all criminal defense lawyers, as well as with others in the legal community and beyond who are increasingly demanding reform of the criminal justice system. Indeed, it is the geometrical expansion of the criminal justice system that underlies a second fundamental bylaw revision. Since its founding, the NACDL bylaws have precisely and somewhat narrowly defined NACDL’s membership categories. This may have made sense at the inception of the organization, but as criminal defense practice evolves and as the criminal law leaches into so many realms of society, an overly restrictive approach to membership makes little sense.

If adopted, the new provisions will authorize the Board of Directors to define membership categories, so that the Board can exercise its discretion to provide membership opportunities for the growing cadre of lawyers whose practices intersect with the criminal law, even if they themselves are not actively engaged in the defense of criminal cases. Lawyers who are providing holistic services for criminal defendants, corporate counsel who must grapple with their clients’ potential criminal liability, and countless others who cannot serve the needs of their clients and the public without grasping the latest developments in the criminal law should have a home at NACDL. Of course, NACDL will always be a home for those who practice criminal defense in every setting, those who teach it, and those whose work regularly supports the criminal defense function.

These two sets of amendments will enable NACDL to adapt to a changing world and a changing practice. They will be complemented by other proposed amendments designed to increase NACDL’s capability to fulfill its mission and serve its members. These include expanding the executive committee by providing for the election by the Board of Directors of three qualified and engaged board representatives, instead of two randomly selected representatives. The amendments also clearly define the role of the officers as ex officio members of the Board of Directors and revise NACDL’s budget process to make fiscal management and planning timelier and efficient. While these latter amendments are more akin to the traditional “watching paint dry” changes that are typical of bylaw revisions, the change in mission and purpose, and the determination to embrace a more expansive membership, are a whole lot more than a fresh coat of paint. They reflect an immutable commitment to the role of the criminal defense function as an enduring bulwark against injustice. 


  1. A notice and a link to the proposed amendments have also been provided to the membership electronically via the monthly E-news and may be accessed at
About the Author

Norman L. Reimer is NACDL’s Executive Director and Publisher of The Champion.

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Norman L. Reimer
Washington, DC