From the President: Thanks to the ‘Transformational’ Norman Reimer

During his 15-year tenure, Norman Reimer led NACDL into new frontiers and modernized NACDL. It is an organization that positively impacts the lives of people accused of crimes.

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“Of all the rights that an accused person has, the right to be represented by counsel is by far the most pervasive, for it affects his ability to assert any other rights he may have.”

United States v. Cronic, 466 U.S. 648, 654 (1984).

In the winter of 2020, Norman Reimer announced that he planned to step down as our executive director after 15 years of service. Since the announcement, I have heard him referred to as a “transformational” leader of NACDL. According to the Cambridge Dictionary, being transformational is when one has been “able to produce big change or improvement.”{1} 1 But we defense attorneys don’t blindly accept such a high complement. Let’s review the evidence regarding transformation as a way of saying thanks to and for Norman for all of his work in promoting the right to counsel.

Over the past decade and a half, Norman has faithfully implemented the policies of the board, led us into new frontiers, and modernized us into being an organization that positively impacts the lives of those accused of crimes.

Norman inherited a healthy organization with a solid foundation. Founded in 1958, NACDL had a strong membership base, the best CLE for trial lawyers, and a long track record of pointing out the flaws in the criminal legal system. When Norman took over, we had a staff of 20 who were largely devoted to member services, with only four staff members dedicated to policy reform. Few of us could have imagined the changes that would occur under Norman’s leadership.

First, Norman changed us into a well-respected and prolific policy reform organization. Prior to Norman, the voice of the defense bar was primarily heard through our individual cases and through NACDL’s amicus briefs. In our first 48 years, NACDL issued two policy reports that dealt with reforming discreet federal issues: grand jury abuse and money laundering laws. Since Norman took the reins, we have issued 44 reports with two more reports in final edits. The topics for the reports range from systemic denial of counsel in South Carolina magistrate courts to combatting systemic racism. NACDL has issued reports on bail reform, overcriminalization, the need for an intent element in all federal offenses, the trial penalty, combatting collateral consequences, and many more. Last month we issued a report on the misuse of the S Visa, and next month we will issue a report on the overcriminalization resulting from the recent laws that restrict access to abortion. For those interested, all of the reports are available online at

The reports shine light on various dark corners of the criminal justice system. For example, the denial of public counsel in South Carolina magistrate courts report received significant media coverage within South Carolina. Shortly after the release of the report, the largest law firm in the state joined the ACLU in suing a county and a municipality for failing to provide counsel to poor defendants. The case was ultimately settled with the governmental bodies agreeing to provide additional funding for the public defender so that lawyers could staff the courts.{2} 2 In the wake of the settlement, several other counties and municipalities around South Carolina began providing funding for public defenders in their magistrate courts. While there is still work to do on this issue in South Carolina, many men and women facing magistrate charges now have representation.

But Norman has done much more than publish reports. He was instrumental in erecting the Return to Freedom Project, an umbrella for several projects that have focused on changing laws and policies that impact prisoners. This umbrella took shape after Clemency Project 2014, which was sparked by President Obama asking the defense bar for help in getting the right clemency petitions to his desk. NACDL and FAMM spearheaded Clemency Project 2014, which involved recruiting, assisting, and training more than 4,000 volunteer lawyers (both big law lawyers and NACDL members) to handle the more than 36,000 requests for assistance. Ultimately, President Obama granted 1,775 commutations and 212 pardons, with an average sentence reduction of 140 months per prisoner. The selfless efforts of the volunteer lawyers saved thousands of years in unnecessary sentences for the prisoners. People languishing in prison have been reunited with their families. This would not have occurred without Norman’s vision, technical capacity, and the ability to mobilize lawyers to provide the volunteer representation.

The success of Clemency Project 2014 provided a model (developing protocols, screening applications, recruitment and training of pro bono lawyers, litigation support, and results) for more recent projects like the Trial Penalty Clemency Project, the Federal Covid-19 Project, the State Clemency Project, and many others. While the newer projects are not as vast in scope as the Clemency Project 2014, they are making significant contributions to justice. The Trial Penalty Clemency Project won incredible results when President Trump granted commutations to 14 prisoners represented by the project who were disproportionately sentenced for exercising their right to trial. The Federal Covid-19 Project received 2,000 requests for counsel, referred 1,000 cases out to volunteer lawyers, and ultimately 180 federal prisoners won compassionate release. And the State Clemency Project recruited more than 2,000 pro bono lawyers resulting in the commutations of 248 prisoners and counting.

Norman’s vision and wisdom to push NACDL into the postconviction space have saved lives while also exposing overcriminalization, excessive sentencing, racial disparities, and other problems inherent in the system.

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Norman also was instrumental in establishing the Fourth Amendment Center, which assists members in litigating cutting-edge technology issues by providing resources as well as direct representation. In fact, the Center is litigating a fascinating geofencing issue right now that has the potential to reach the Supreme Court.

This great policy and substantive work could not have been done without a great staff. As I mentioned, when Norman left the courtroom to become our executive director, he inherited a staff of 20 dedicated people. However, only four staff members were lawyers, and only two had criminal defense experience. There were also too few people of color on the 2006 staff.

Today, Norman leaves us a staff of 47 dedicated men and women, of which 16 are lawyers, 12 have criminal defense experience, and 7 were public defenders or appointed counsel before joining NACDL. Importantly, there is significant diversity of the staff.{3} 3  See and read about the staff at Like Norman, they do great work for us every day.

Of course, prior to Norman, nobody was opposed to having a larger and more talented staff. We simply couldn’t afford it. Norman had to find the money for each new project and for each new addition to the team.

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And find the money he did. During Norman’s tenure, our annual budget quadrupled despite our membership and dues revenue remaining the same. (And the fact that the membership in our great voluntary bar association has remained the same is not intended as a criticism — while most voluntary bar associations have been rapidly losing members over the past 15 years, the fact that NACDL members stuck together is a significant accomplishment.)

Norman raised the money by getting us into the fundraising and grant procurement business. Prior to Norman’s arrival, we had raised approximately $260,000 in grant funding in the modern history of NACDL. To raise money for a project, we were more likely to pass a hat than to seek a grant (and God bless Albert Krieger for passing many hats for worthy causes!). Since Norman’s arrival, our annual galas have netted more than $3 million while the NACDL staff has procured in excess of $27 million in grant funding. The grant funds are tied to projects that we care about — death penalty defense training, policy accountability database construction, forensics, and trial penalty reform, just to name a few.

Norman has been prolific at fundraising and skilled at fiscal management without becoming a bean counter. He remains laser-focused on the policy and mission that drives NACDL. It was Norman who suggested that we change the mission statement to include combatting systemic racism because it is the core of who we are. It was Norman who recently suggested that we stop referring to the criminal legal system as the “criminal justice system” because it is not just enough. With Norman, the funds are the means to the end. The end is to create a criminal justice system.

Norman has managed NACDL like a pass-first point guard. One key to Norman’s long-term success has been how easily he credited others for every NACDL accomplishment while minimizing or ignoring his own contributions. When we put in the work, staff and members knew that Norman would notice and publicly applaud the effort. This is one of the reasons that it was so hard to say no when Norman twisted your arm for involvement in yet another project.

For me, the verdict is in. “Transformational” is a kind description of Norman, and it is true. Norman has changed us for the better and has had a profound impact on improving NACDL, reforming the criminal legal system, and strengthening the most pervasive right — the right to counsel. Thank you, Norm.

About the Author

After spending 15 years as a public defender and nonprofit lawyer, Chris Adams opened his private practice in 2007. He devotes half of his practice to defending men and women facing the death penalty in federal and state courts throughout the country. He also defends people and businesses facing allegations or investigations in federal and state courts.

Christopher W. Adams (NACDL Life Member)
Adams & Bischoff, LLC
Charleston, South Carolina