Inside NACDL: 2008: NACDL’s Year of Celebration, Transition — and Hope

Inside NACDL

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.

The year 2008 promises to be a watershed year for NACDL. The Association will celebrate its 50th Anniversary. The home offices will relocate to new facilities. And the nation will elect a new president.

50th Anniversary

On Aug. 11, 1958, Professor Fred E. Inbau, with the aid of a Ford Foundation grant, convened an educational program titled “Short Course for Defense Lawyers.”1 The program was held at Cook Hall on the campus of Northwestern Law School in Chicago. Fittingly, noted author Erle Stanley Gardner, creator of the legendary fictional defense lawyer “Perry Mason,” delivered the opening address. At the conclusion of the program, a group that included the leading defense lawyers of the day adjourned for lunch at the Drake Hotel. It was there that the National Association of Defense Lawyers in Criminal Cases was founded.2 Charles A. Bellows of Chicago was elected president, Samuel Dash of Philadelphia was elected vice president and Claude R. Sowle, assistant professor of law at Northwestern, was elected secretary.3 

“Criminal lawyer” had “unsavory, B-movie connotations” at the time, Dash would later explain. As he wrote in his introduction to the 40th American Criminal Law Review,4 “I and a group of other criminal defense lawyers, feeling ostracized by the organized bar and demeaned by the profession and the public for the law we practiced, decided to upgrade the reputation of the practice of criminal law. We formed the National Association of Defense Lawyers in Criminal Cases. The name we chose for our new organization was symptomatic of the times. We called ourselves ‘defense lawyers in criminal cases’ rather than ‘criminal defense lawyers’ because of the stigma we perceived attached to the latter designation.”

Over the five decades since, the Association has become one of the preeminent national bar groups in the country. With more than 12,000 direct members and an additional 35,000 affiliate members, NACDL has taken its place as a leading voice for due process, providing stalwart support for the nation’s criminal defense lawyers and organized advocacy in support of fundamental constitutional protections. Across the full spectrum of defense practice, NACDL has mobilized support for indigent defense reform, White Collar reform, innocence protection initiatives, preservation of habeas corpus, and opposition to capital punishment. NACDL is currently leading a broad coalition to protect the attorney-client privilege and to study the impact of problem-solving courts, and is preparing to launch new projects to support grand jury reform, oppose over-criminalization, and study the quality of justice in the nation’s misdemeanor tribunals.

NACDL plans to celebrate its milestone year in myriad ways. Enclosed with this issue of The Champion is a special 18-month 50th Anniversary calendar. It is dedicated to NACDL’s amazing members whose daily fight to secure justice for the accused embodies the highest standards of professionalism. Throughout the year, The Champion will feature retrospectives focusing on five decades of change in various aspects of defense practice. And, on May 2, 2008, during the Association’s Spring Meeting in New York City, the Foundation for Criminal Justice is hosting the 50th Anniversary Gala Dinner to benefit NACDL. The event will be held at Cipriani Wall Street, one of New York’s most distinctive and glamorous venues. Members are urged to reserve early, as this promises to be a spectacular evening of fun and celebration. (See page 3 for more information.)

NACDL Relocates

Coincidentally, this year NACDL will end a long period of nomadic existence as a short-term sub-lessor, when the Association moves into new facilities at the Kita Washington Center, located at 1660 L Street. As of April 1, 2008, NACDL will have a 10-year prime tenancy with options extending beyond that period. Our new home, occupying the entire top floor of the building, will include a member conference facility for those who need a temporary work space while in DC on business and a larger facility to accommodate in-house seminars.

The Nation Elects A New President

The celebration of an important anniversary and the move to better facilities are reason enough for hope. But 2008 also brings America’s quadrennial exercise in renewal — a presidential election. This year’s election comes with the certainly that a new administration will be chosen. Some might ask whether that is a reason for optimism at NACDL and for those who share our commitment to justice. I believe it is. While we are disappointed at the limited response to our quadrennial presidential candidate questionnaire (see page 28), upon reflection, perhaps the low response rate is itself reason for hope.

History teaches us that it is usually not a good sign when criminal justice issues play a predominant role in a presidential campaign. A campaign that does not feature a “Willie Horton,” a call for “law and order,” or a call to arms in the “war on drugs” or the “war on terror” probably is a good thing.

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During the past year there were more positive developments in criminal justice than we have seen in quite some time: declining ardor for capital punishment, highlighted by New Jersey’s rejection of the death penalty and the United Nations General Assembly’s overwhelming adoption of a resolution calling for a worldwide moratorium, Supreme Court decisions vindicating judicial discretion in sentencing and clarifying the advisory nature of the Sentencing Guidelines, growing support for innocence initiatives, building momentum for protection of the attorney-client privilege, and an increasing recognition that overly severe sentencing practices are counter-productive. Taken as a whole, these developments suggest that the pendulum of justice is swinging in a more humane direction.

Against that backdrop, let us hope that whether or not the presidential candidates embrace this change in direction, they and their political gurus have concluded that criminal justice issues can safely be sidestepped, if only because they realize that the public has at long last lost its appetite for crime-bashing demagoguery.

Time alone will tell whether the positive trends of 2007 are an aberration or an augury of things to come. But one thing is certain. An NACDL, energized by a celebration of its first half-century, is poised to carry the struggle for due process into a second glorious 50 years as “Liberty’s Last Champion.”



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  1. The historical facts cited in this article are culled from History of National Association of Defense Lawyers in Criminal Cases 1958-1975, written by Dan H. McCullough at the behest of the NACDL Board of Directors meeting at the Greenbrier in White Sulpher Springs, West Virginia, in August 1974.
  2. The name was changed to the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers on Aug. 9, 1969, at the annual meeting at Las Brisas Hotel, Acapulco, Mexico.
  3. The other members of the Board of Directors were John W. Condon Jr. of Buffalo, E. Patrick Hartt of Toronto, Canada, Jack L. Goodsitt of Milwaukee, Bernear J. Gilday Jr. of Cincinnati, Luther E. Jones Jr. of Corpus Christi, George N. Leighton of Chicago, Melvin S. Louison of Taunton, Massachusetts, Robert B. Oxtoby of Springfield, Illinois, and Edward Bennett Williams of Washington, D.C.
  4. 40 Am. Crim. L. Rev. 1 (2003).