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2020 Annual Report

In an election year like no other, Brennan Center worked to ensure that democracy prevailed.

Published: March 25, 2021
Annual report cover image
Brand New School

Letter from the Board Chairs

Dear Friends,

We are pleased to share with you this report on the truly extraordin­ary year that was. As we reflect on the Bren­nan Center’s accom­plish­ments in 2020, we can say with great pride and relief that in the end, demo­cracy prevailed — against brazen assaults on our elect­oral processes, against lies inten­ded to equate ballot access with stolen elec­tions, and against naked attempts to dele­git­im­ize the votes and voices of Black and brown people.

The events of the past year brought into sharp focus the deep­en­ing cracks in our systems of demo­cracy and justice. We can no longer take for gran­ted that they will endure in the face of relent­less, and increas­ingly danger­ous, attacks.

What is also clear: the mission of the Bren­nan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law — to defend, restore, and renew those systems — has never been more vital to our coun­try’s future.

Since its incep­tion 25 years ago, our organ­iz­a­tion has been at the center of these fights. The Bren­nan Center is nonpar­tisan and fiercely inde­pend­ent. We lead with facts — backed by rigor­ous research, top-notch legal advocacy, and expert commu­nic­a­tions — to solve the most press­ing issues facing our demo­cracy. We work to hold our insti­tu­tions account­able to the prom­ise of liberty and justice for all.

In 2020, we prior­it­ized protect­ing the elec­tion — coun­ter­ing disin­form­a­tion, misin­form­a­tion, and attempts at further suppress­ing the vote under the pretext of a pandemic. Those efforts — publish­ing the slate of propos­als relied on by national lead­ers to ensure safe and secure voting, advising elec­tion offi­cials and ampli­fy­ing their trus­ted voices, part­ner­ing with broad coali­tions and craft­ing campaigns to increase voter parti­cip­a­tion, going to court to protect ballot access, expand­ing our public reach, and ensur­ing a strong, well-funded insti­tu­tional struc­ture and spine — are detailed in the pages that follow.

We enter the new year deeply commit­ted to seiz­ing the oppor­tun­it­ies and confront­ing the chal­lenges ahead. We are ready to usher in an era of renewal and to fully rein­force the values of parti­cip­at­ory demo­cracy, equal justice, and the rule of law.

Our charge in 2021: To advance much-needed reforms that have been made possible by new lead­er­ship in the White House and Congress. To restore the balance of power among our three branches of govern­ment and call out exec­ut­ive over­reach. And to craft the next gener­a­tion of solu­tions that will revital­ize our systems of demo­cracy and justice.

At this pivotal moment, we know that we have a once-in-a-life­time chance to win the change our nation so urgently needs, and that the only way to defend our demo­cracy is to strengthen it.

The Bren­nan Center is extraordin­ar­ily grate­ful to its community of support­ers — people like you, who have long partnered with us, encour­aged us, and enabled our efforts to protect our shared, treas­ured values. As we celeb­rate every success, learn from every chal­lenge, and look ahead to the prom­ise of all that is to come, we thank you for your stead­fast commit­ment.

Here’s to a better, more demo­cratic, and more just Amer­ica — for all.

Robert Atkins Signature Robert Atkins
Co-chair, Board of Direct­ors

Patricia Bauman Signature Patri­cia Bauman
Co-chair, Board of Direct­ors

framers quote

Letter from the President

For the People

After years of threats to demo­cracy, the moment for reform is now.

We’re in a great fight for the future of Amer­ican demo­cracy. Over the past year, we saw a historic turnout for the 2020 elec­tion, even amid an ongo­ing pandemic and fren­etic efforts to restrict the vote. Then we watched aghast as the defeated former pres­id­ent tried to over­turn the elec­tion and foment an insur­rec­tion. Now his support­ers are push­ing restrict­ive voting laws across the coun­try — laws aimed squarely at Black and brown citizens, using the same Big Lie peddled by Trump and the Proud Boys.

History teaches that after abuse of power, a season of reform often follows. But such change is far from auto­matic. The best response to attacks on demo­cracy is to strengthen demo­cracy. The best response to the Big Lie is to tell the truth.

This year — and the years to come — offer a remark­able chance to advance bold reforms that will help ensure that our govern­ment works for all Amer­ic­ans. It’s a fight the Bren­nan Center is waging nation­ally and in states across the coun­try.

I’ve worked on these issues for the better part of four decades — in the White House, teach­ing, prac­ti­cing law, and lead­ing the Bren­nan Center for the past 15 years. Never have I seen so much urgency, so much focus, so great a recog­ni­tion of the need to repair and defend our frayed demo­cracy.

Michael Waldman pullquote: “The best response to attacks on democracy is to strengthen democracy. The best response to the Big Lie is to tell the truth.”

So, in 2021, the Bren­nan Center has thrown itself fully into the fight for reform. We are focus­ing our resources on five key fights:

  1. The For the People Act (H.R. 1 and S. 1). This land­mark bill passed the House in March 2021. If enacted, it would be the most sweep­ing demo­cracy reform in more than half a century — the next great civil rights law. It would make govern­ment more respons­ive and less corrupt. And it would meet the urgent demand for racial justice by advan­cing a more repres­ent­at­ive demo­cracy.
    What would it do? Auto­matic voter regis­tra­tion is already in effect in 19 states and D.C. If fully imple­men­ted nation­wide, it could add tens of millions to the rolls perman­ently. The bill would also set a national stand­ard for voter access in every state — requir­ing the oppor­tun­ity to vote by mail, ensur­ing adequate early in-person voting, and curb­ing voter suppres­sion. It would reform campaign finance and curb the role of big money by estab­lish­ing a system of small donor public finan­cing, which would give ordin­ary citizens a louder voice, even in an era of dark money and super PACs. It would bar partisan gerry­man­der­ing, setting up inde­pend­ent redis­trict­ing commis­sions to draw fair maps. It would strengthen federal ethics laws. And it would end a shame­ful legacy of the Jim Crow era by restor­ing the right to vote for people with past crim­inal convic­tions.
    This meas­ure marks a mile­stone for the Bren­nan Center. Many of its provi­sions — such as auto­matic voter regis­tra­tion and small donor public finan­cing — were first proposed and advanced by our experts over the past decade and a half. Now we can make them the law of the land.
  2. The John Lewis Voting Rights Advance­ment Act. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was the nation’s most effect­ive civil rights law, but the Supreme Court gutted it in its 2013 Shelby County v. Holder ruling. Ever since, voter suppres­sion laws have prolif­er­ated. This vital legis­la­tion would restore the Act to full strength and apply new rules through­out the coun­try.
  3. The Protect­ing Our Demo­cracy Act. Trump’s pres­id­ency showed the import­ance of the unwrit­ten norms of self-governance — the often invis­ible guard­rails that protect against abuse of power. The Bren­nan Center’s Task Force on Demo­cracy and the Rule of Law, co-chaired by Preet Bhar­ara and Christine Todd Whit­man, set out reforms to codify many of them. Their recom­mend­a­tions are reflec­ted in legis­la­tion to strengthen checks and balances and restore account­ab­il­ity to the pres­id­ency.
  4. Curb­ing the imper­ial pres­id­ency. Trump’s declar­a­tion of a national emer­gency to fund his border wall with Mexico revealed the poten­tial for abuse of exec­ut­ive powers. The answer is to reset the skewed balance of power between the pres­id­ent and Congress. Strength­en­ing the National Emer­gen­cies Act would preserve the pres­id­ent’s abil­ity to act in true emer­gen­cies while respect­ing the Consti­tu­tion.
  5. The fight in the states. Trump’s Big Lie contin­ues to drive efforts to restrict the vote in states across the coun­try. Accord­ing to our research, four times as many voter suppres­sion meas­ures were intro­duced in 2021 as had been proposed two years before, dispro­por­tion­ately target­ing Black and brown voters. And they aim to roll back vital gains achieved in the past year — attack­ing vote by mail and early voting. We will expose and fight these moves. And we’ll make clear that Congress can stop this voter suppres­sion wave, cold, with reform legis­la­tion. It has the consti­tu­tional and legal author­ity. Now it must have the polit­ical will.

I’m so proud of my Bren­nan Center colleagues. They’re passion­ate, rigor­ous, and commit­ted. They have poured them­selves into the fight for our coun­try’s ideals and to strengthen our insti­tu­tions. Now we can see these innov­at­ive ideas writ­ten into law. For us, that is the great purpose of the year ahead.

Michael Waldman Signature Michael Wald­man


The Good Fight

The Good Fight

The 2020 elec­tion — held amid a pandemic and lies — was an extraordin­ary civic achieve­ment. The ques­tion now: how do we sustain and build on those advances?

In 2020, despite the Covid-19 pandemic, voter suppres­sion, and pres­id­en­tial lies, we saw the highest turnout since 1900. An aston­ish­ing 108 million voters — two-thirds of the total — cast their ballots early or by mail. In Novem­ber 2020, Amer­ican demo­cracy triumphed.

All of this might have seemed impossible earlier in the year. When the pandemic hit, it seemed incon­ceiv­able that a free, fair, secure, and safe elec­tion could take place in just eight months.

Achiev­ing it required a surge of commit­ment from across the polit­ical spec­trum. Civic groups, voting rights advoc­ates, elec­tion offi­cials, and busi­nesses mobil­ized. Improved elec­tion systems, upgraded infra­struc­ture, and invest­ment in train­ing, tech­nical support, and backup meas­ures preven­ted the debil­it­at­ing attack from foreign actors that many had feared. Most states expan­ded access to voting and made major changes to ensure secure and safe elec­tions. The result: an elec­tion that the federal govern­ment concluded was the “most secure” in U.S. history.

The Bren­nan Center played a crucial role in these successes — fight­ing disin­form­a­tion and voter suppres­sion, work­ing to ensure that proper elec­tion secur­ity proced­ures were in place, and respond­ing to the new threats posed by Covid-19:

  • In March, the very same week we aban­doned our offices because of the shut­down, we outlined a plan of action in How to Protect the 2020 Vote from the Coronavirus, arguing for access to vote by mail, expan­ded early voting, and safe polling places. It was embraced by more than 200 civil rights, good govern­ment, and civic groups, as well as by 1,000 polit­ical scient­ists, state elec­tion offi­cials, and members of Congress.
  • Also in March, we published a prelim­in­ary estim­ate of how much it would cost to protect the Novem­ber elec­tion from the virus. Our estim­ate: approx­im­ately $2 billion. A month later, we released another estim­ate of how much money it would cost to protect all elec­tions — includ­ing primar­ies — through­out 2020. The total price tag: at least $4 billion.
  • We persuaded Congress to provide $400 million for states to run safe elec­tions as part of the first coronavirus relief bill. All told, our staff experts test­i­fied before Congress six times in 2020.
  • By April, we were in constant commu­nic­a­tion with our coast-to-coast network of hundreds of elec­tion offi­cials.
  • By June, we had produced 14 policy papers. One major area of focus was defend­ing the secur­ity and neces­sity of expan­ded vote by mail. We noted that many states, both Demo­cratic and Repub­lican, already had made mail ballot­ing the primary method of voting.
  • In August, we teamed up with the Infec­tious Diseases Soci­ety of Amer­ica and issued joint guidelines to minim­ize the risk of trans­mit­ting Covid-19 at the polls. The docu­ment provided solu­tions — such as where to locate polling sites and how to config­ure and supply them — to ensure the safety of voters and poll work­ers alike.
  • Also in August, we released tool kits for activ­ists in all 50 states. In each tool kit, we iden­ti­fied the voting reforms needed in each state. Activ­ists could then use this inform­a­tion to pres­sure their legis­lat­ors to imple­ment the right policies to make voting as safe and access­ible as possible.
  • By Septem­ber, we were work­ing with local groups in Flor­ida, Geor­gia, Pennsylvania, and Texas on state-specific voter educa­tion and protec­tion efforts. In Pennsylvania, we teamed up with Hall of Famer Franco Harris of the Pitt­s­burgh Steel­ers, who taped a public service announce­ment remind­ing voters to put their mail ballots into the mandated secur­ity envel­opes, in order to ensure their votes would be coun­ted.
  • Our attor­neys filed or inter­vened in lawsuits in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Texas — either to defend neces­sary voting changes that protec­ted voters from the virus, or to stop voting changes that would put voters in harm’s way or suppress the vote. In Octo­ber, we success­fully blocked an attempt by the Trump campaign to ban the use of secure drop boxes for Pennsylvania voters who chose to vote by mail.
  • As the elec­tion approached, we conduc­ted high-level media brief­ings on how the pandemic could impact voters and the count. Our experts spoke to the news corps at ABC, NBC/MSNBC, and Univi­sion. And we partnered with ABC News in the run-up to Elec­tion Day. Our goal was to ensure that the media explained that delays in count­ing votes were to be expec­ted amid a pandemic.
  • After the elec­tion, we traveled to Geor­gia to help elec­tion offi­cials conduct a recount of the pres­id­en­tial vote as Pres­id­ent Trump attacked the integ­rity of the state’s elec­tion offi­cials and alleged foul play. We provided train­ing that helped offi­cials perform a risk-limit­ing audit — under unpre­ced­en­ted national scru­tiny — that confirmed Joe Biden had won the state of Geor­gia.

In the face of this remark­able elec­tion, Donald Trump and his allies promoted a Big Lie: that it was stolen and that he really won. He attemp­ted to throw out the votes of major­ity-Black cities, such as Phil­adelphia, Milwau­kee, and Atlanta. He tried to over­turn the results of the elec­tion while waging a constant disin­form­a­tion campaign claim­ing that wide­spread voter fraud had robbed him of a second term.

Sixty courts rejec­ted his claims, find­ing no evid­ence of voter fraud. Even so, tens of millions of Amer­ic­ans wrongly believed the elec­tion was stolen. This fantasy then inspired an insur­rec­tion that aimed to stop the count­ing of elect­oral votes, leav­ing six dead, hundreds injured, and the Capitol ransacked.

The Big Lie did not end on Janu­ary 6. It still drives the move to restrict the vote across the United States. Legis­lat­ors across the coun­try are trying to roll back the improve­ments that led to record turnout in 2020 and a success­ful elec­tion that might have ended in disaster. The Bren­nan Center will continue to fight back against these racist and anti­demo­cratic voter-suppres­sion bills. The struggle to protect the vote never ends, and our vigil­ance will not waver.

The Good Fight: Digital

Getting the Word Out

Since the last presidential election, the Brennan Center's website traffic has increased 263%.
4.5 million people visited our site and 8,000 digital donors gave $1.5 million.

The Good Fight: Media

In 2020, the Bren­nan Center earned 67,502 media mentions. That’s up over the last pres­id­en­tial elec­tion year by 182%.

Brennan Center staff on television
Left: Harsha Pandur­anga, coun­sel in the Liberty and National Secur­ity Program, joins NY 1 on March 1, 2020, to discuss the Trump admin­is­tra­tion’s Muslim ban. ​​Right: Bren­nan Center Fellow Michael German joins MSNBC’s All In with Chris Hayes on August 28, 2020, to discuss far-right milit­ant groups and their ties with law enforce­ment.
Brennan Center staff on television
Left: Bren­nan Center Pres­id­ent Michael Wald­man joins ABC’s Good Morn­ing Amer­ica on Octo­ber 22, 2020, to discuss the like­li­hood of voter fraud in the 2020 pres­id­en­tial elec­tion. Right: Eliza­beth Goitein, director of the Liberty and National Secur­ity Program, joins CBS Sunday Morn­ing’s Ted Koppel on August 16, 2020, to discuss secret pres­id­en­tial powers.
Brennan Center staff on television
Left: Vice Pres­id­ent for Demo­cracy Wendy Weiser joins MSNBC Live on Septem­ber 13, 2020, to discuss why voters should trust our elec­tion system. Right: Theodore R. John­son, director of the Fellows Program, joins CNN News­room Live on Novem­ber 8, 2020, to discuss the role of voters of color during the pres­id­en­tial elec­tion.
Brennan Center staff on television
Left: Director of the Elec­tion Reform Program Lawrence Norden joins Fox News on Octo­ber 21, 2020, to discuss elec­tion secur­ity. Right: Faiza Patel, director of the Liberty and National Secur­ity Program, joins Al Jazeera on April 25, 2020, to discuss pandemic-related surveil­lance.


The Good Fight: Advocacy

Partnering with the Business Community

Part­ner­ing with the Busi­ness Community

The private sector stepped up in mean­ing­ful ways to make voting safe and access­ible in 2020. Here’s how those efforts played out and paid off.

A dynamic coali­tion of private-sector and nonprofit lead­ers stepped up in extraordin­ary ways to protect the 2020 elec­tions. The Bren­nan Center worked side by side with an array of law firms, phil­an­throp­ists, and busi­nesses to ensure that all eligible voters could safely cast their ballots.

We are partic­u­larly proud to be a primary part­ner of the nonpar­tisan Time to Vote move­ment, spear­headed by Levi Strauss & Co., Patago­nia, and PayPal. After honor­ing the coali­tion with a 2019 Bren­nan Legacy Award, we went on in 2020 to present a series of strategy brief­ings to the Time to Vote member­ship, provide it with policy expert­ise and support, and publicly advoc­ate on behalf of its mission, penning op-eds in News­week and the Miami Herald.

In the lead-up to the elec­tion, the New York Times featured Bren­nan Center Board member and Time to Vote prin­cipal Franz Paasche in an article about the effort, “Paid Time Off, Free Fries: How Corpor­ate Amer­ica Is Getting Out the Vote.” The Times repor­ted: “Corpor­ate Amer­ica is having a civic awaken­ing, with thou­sands of compan­ies encour­aging voter parti­cip­a­tion by offer­ing their work­ers paid time off, voter-educa­tion tools and inter­act­ive sessions on how elec­tions work.” Time to Vote also played a vital role in recruit­ing a new gener­a­tion of poll work­ers — a role tradi­tion­ally filled by older adults, who faced grave health risks this year due to the pandemic.

In normal times, a func­tional demo­cracy should not have to rely on the private sector to provide the very basics for its elec­tions. This year, however, our national lead­ers failed to provide adequate finan­cial resources. Even as we fought to hold them account­able, we doubled down to ensure that any inter­ven­tions to help fill the breach were legal and sound. We published explain­ers about the appro­pri­ate guard­rails for monet­ary contri­bu­tions or dona­tions of items like personal protect­ive equip­ment to elec­tion offi­cials. And we spoke out in support of the major sports fran­chises that conver­ted their super­sized arenas into polling places by making the case that these sites met the guidelines we published in conjunc­tion with the Infec­tious Diseases Soci­ety of Amer­ica for healthy, in-person voting.


The Work Ahead

The Work Ahead

Bren­nan Center staff are publish­ing books, devel­op­ing research, and creat­ing new policy — all aimed at build­ing a more perfect union.

1) Court Reform: Back on the Agenda
Alicia Bannon pullquote: “There is a democratic legitimacy deficit on the Supreme Court.”

Decades after Pres­id­ent Donald Trump and Sen. Mitch McCon­nell have left the polit­ical scene, their imprint on Amer­ican life will be felt through the rulings of more than 230 new federal judges. But this stark remak­ing of the courts has only heightened a crisis long in progress, says Alicia Bannon, managing director of the Demo­cracy Program. The chan­ging of the guard in Wash­ing­ton brings an oppor­tun­ity to ensure that the judi­ciary deliv­ers justice and is seen as legit­im­ate.

Why should Supreme Court reform be a prior­ity?

The Court is supposed to be the last line of defense for hold­ing our govern­ment account­able to the Consti­tu­tion, protect­ing our rights, and making sure our demo­cracy func­tions. In 2020, though, the Court made it harder to vote amid the pandemic — one of many instances in which it has rolled back rights.

These decisions come against the back­drop of a judi­cial confirm­a­tion process that has descen­ded to the rawest kind of partisan consti­tu­tional hard­ball. Amy Coney Barrett was confirmed just about a week before Elec­tion Day, even though Senate Repub­lic­ans had refused to consider filling Justice Scali­a’s seat when it opened nearly nine months before the 2016 elec­tion.

This is more than just hypo­crisy. It’s a crisis for the rule of law and for our demo­cracy. Courts don’t have an army. What they have is their public legit­im­acy — the fact that people are will­ing to accept judi­cial decisions even when they vehe­mently disagree with them.

There is also a broader demo­cratic legit­im­acy defi­cit on the Court. We appoint our judges through a polit­ical process so that there is a link between the Court and the values of our coun­try. But this means that demo­cracy defi­cits in our polit­ical system rever­ber­ate in the judi­ciary. For example, among the six conser­vat­ive justices, all but Chief Justice Roberts were confirmed by senat­ors who won their most recent elec­tions with fewer votes in sum than the senat­ors who voted against confirm­a­tion. This affects the Court in substant­ive ways; it is ideo­lo­gic­ally extreme and not aligned with either the public or the legal profes­sion.

What are some start­ing points for reform?

It’s best to start with the prob­lems we’re trying to address. What pack­ages of reforms respond to those concerns and reset the dynamic so we don’t have contin­ued escal­a­tion around confirm­a­tions and so the Court is more stable, more repres­ent­at­ive, and more legit­im­ate?

One place where reformers could start to address this is through the size of the Court. While expan­sion is often framed as a partisan move, it could be a compon­ent of a broader struc­tural reform. Subsets of justices could hear cases in panels, as courts do in India, Germany, and the United King­dom. Some uncer­tainty around who’s going to cast the decid­ing vote in any partic­u­lar case would discour­age the Court from push­ing the legal envel­ope too far, and it would help lower the stakes — and hope­fully the temper­at­ure — of confirm­a­tions.

On a lot of dimen­sions, the Court does not look like Amer­ica or even the legal profes­sion, and a larger court could open up oppor­tun­it­ies for greater diversity in terms of educa­tion, profes­sional back­ground, geography, race, and ethni­city.

Another thing to look at is how vacan­cies get created. It’s become the norm for justices to time their retire­ments, wait­ing for a pres­id­ent who’ll appoint a like-minded successor. That does­n’t make any sense from the perspect­ive of the Court’s legit­im­acy or the demo­cratic process. Regu­lar appoint­ments — with every pres­id­ent getting two appoint­ments every four years — are one way of intro­du­cing predict­ab­il­ity into the process and taking away justices’ power to shape the Court’s future compos­i­tion. Term limits are also respons­ive to this concern.

How should we look at district and circuit courts, where the vast major­ity of federal cases end?

We need a differ­ent approach to the nomin­a­tion process, and we need path­ways to the federal bench other than prosec­utors’ offices and corpor­ate law firms. Civil rights lawyers and public defend­ers are virtu­ally absent from the bench right now. There’s also a stark lack of demo­graphic diversity; nearly three-quar­ters of federal judges are white, and more than two-thirds are male.

We should also be think­ing about how our system of justice is and isn’t work­ing for people. Judge-made doctrines like qual­i­fied immunity have slammed the court­house doors to those look­ing to hold police account­able for abuses. Laws like the 1996 Prison Litig­a­tion Reform Act pose huge barri­ers to incar­cer­ated people bring­ing civil rights cases. Congress should open up our courts so people can vindic­ate their rights.

What can Biden and Congress accom­plish on the courts?

Biden has already signaled that he’s going to prior­it­ize judi­cial nomin­a­tions — and that he’s look­ing for nomin­ees from diverse back­grounds, includ­ing civil rights lawyers. This is urgently needed to bring some balance to a judi­ciary that Trump has left a tremend­ous mark on.

The Supreme Court justices are the only judges in the coun­try who don’t follow a code of conduct, and it’s telling that they have yet to adopt one. The For the People Act would require it. I also expect to see a push in Congress to add seats to the lower courts — some­thing the judi­ciary says it needs to handle case­loads, which have grown tremend­ously. This has received bipar­tisan support in the past.

How does the judi­ciary fit into the broad­er­demo­cracy reform agenda?

So many of the prob­lems in our courts come from the fact that our polit­ical branches aren’t suffi­ciently repres­ent­at­ive of and respons­ive to the public. This makes it harder for the public to advoc­ate for strong judi­cial nomin­ees. It means that a lot of issues that should be addressed legis­lat­ively end up getting booted to the courts. And most consequen­tially, it means that Congress only rarely uses its power to undo harm­ful Supreme Court decisions, even though in many instances the Court has left that option open.

Congress will have the chance to consider key legis­la­tion — the For the People Act and the Voting Rights Advance­ment Act. If we have a govern­ment that’s really by, for, and of the people, that will make the courts less import­ant. That’s good news for the courts, and for all of us.

2) Racial Justice: Perfect­ing the Amer­ican Exper­i­ment
Theodore R. Johnson pullquote: “If we are really serious about tackling structural racism, it’s going to require nearly all of us”

Theodore R. John­son is the director of the Bren­nan Center’s Fellows Program. His book, When the Stars Begin to Fall: Over­com­ing Racism and Renew­ing the Prom­ise of Amer­ica, will be published in 2021 by Grove Atlantic.

You are the first director of the Bren­nan Center’s Fellows Program. What’s your vision for the program going forward?

I have two primary goals for the Fellows Program. The first is to bring new and diverse voices and perspect­ives that expand the reach of the Bren­nan Center’s core mission and look ahead to policy chal­lenges that Amer­ic­ans must confront. For example, we’re bring­ing on a formerly incar­cer­ated fellow to augment our policy work with the perspect­ive of someone with lived exper­i­ence in our nation’s correc­tional facil­it­ies.

The second is to focus on the neces­sity to reform our demo­cratic culture. We need to ensure a citizenry that is prop­erly equipped to parti­cip­ate in our demo­cracy. Much of the Bren­nan Center’s work is neces­sar­ily aimed at protect­ing and defend­ing our demo­cracy’s systems and processes through exec­ut­ive, legis­lat­ive, and judi­cial means. But if systemic reforms are paired with a disen­gaged or ill-prepared public, our demo­cracy will not fulfill its poten­tial. Our abil­ity to achieve these goals will bene­fit from the input of a mix of fellows who collect­ively bring schol­ar­ship and an array of lived exper­i­ences and nontra­di­tional career paths to bear.

You’ve also been a Bren­nan Center fellow for three years. What makes the program distinct?

There are few places where one can explore complic­ated topics and ideas, have the free­dom to determ­ine how best to pursue and share those ideas, and do so along­side the best legal minds work­ing to reform our systems of demo­cracy and justice. You can bring an entre­pren­eur­ial spirit and your personal exper­i­ence to the work, pair it with rigor­ous schol­ar­ship, and build on the Bren­nan Center’s program­matic work to reach new audi­ences. Our current cohort of fellows have under­taken book projects, organ­ized public events and sympo­sia, conduc­ted applied and theor­et­ical research, writ­ten narrat­ive essays, and contrib­uted timely op-eds on current news to comple­ment the organ­iz­a­tion’s work.

The time and space to be curi­ous is invalu­able. In my three years here, I’ve writ­ten not only a book, but also essays and op-eds for more than a dozen national news­pa­pers and magazines on Black voting beha­vior as well as race rela­tions in Amer­ica writ large. And I’ve moder­ated talks with lead­ing schol­ars, renowned authors and journ­al­ists, and politi­cians from Geor­gi­a’s Stacey Abrams to South Caro­lina Sen. Tim Scott. The oppor­tun­ity that the Fellows Program affords is extraordin­ary.

Your book grapples with racism, argu­ably the most crit­ical issue facing Amer­ica, and does so with optim­ism. Tell us about it.

There are lots of books out that tackle vari­ous chal­lenges result­ing from struc­tural racism, and the seri­ous­ness of the topic often leaves read­ers feel­ing pess­im­istic about our abil­ity to confront them. My book does­n’t shy away from the immens­ity of the chal­lenges, but it seeks to provide a path­way through so that the United States can manage the effects of struc­tural racism.

The argu­ment is pretty straight­for­ward: racism is the primary obstacle to Amer­ica’s living up to its professed ideals, and the only way to get past it is to instill a multiracial solid­ar­ity among Amer­ic­ans. It also argues that Black Amer­ic­ans’ histor­ical exper­i­ence in the United States provides lessons for what national solid­ar­ity should look like.

The book incor­por­ates a wide read­ing of history, polit­ical science, and soci­ology as the found­a­tion for its insights on how to create connec­tions among the members of a diverse soci­ety. But it also includes deeply personal narrat­ives to pair the schol­ar­ship with appeals to public senti­ment. The book weaves this all together in a way that makes it access­ible, enga­ging, and chal­len­ging all at once.

A lot of your writ­ing delves into your family’s and your own exper­i­ences with race and racism. What exper­i­ences in your life make you optim­istic that national solid­ar­ity is possible?

Almost the entirety of my life has required not only that I live and work with differ­ent racial and economic groups, but that I invest in each of them. I grew up in Raleigh, North Caro­lina, where my family was one of the few Black famil­ies in an over­whelm­ingly white neigh­bor­hood. I spent 20 years in the milit­ary, where I met, served with, and befriended Amer­ic­ans hold­ing polit­ical ideo­lo­gies across the spec­trum. I went to a histor­ic­ally Black univer­sity for my under­gradu­ate educa­tion and to gradu­ate schools with students from very wealthy famil­ies.

All of the exper­i­ences and expos­ures demon­strated how very much the vast major­ity of Amer­ic­ans have in common. But it also exposed how danger­ous it is when we are unable or unwill­ing to exit our comfort zones and engage the very people we need to create a true multiracial demo­cracy. The Amer­ican project requires we find ways to create connec­tions with demo­cratic strangers. It is hard and involved and resource intens­ive, but it is possible. And frankly, it is the only way to ensure that the nation endures.

One of the admir­able things about your work is you prac­tice what you preach. You’ve writ­ten for very conser­vat­ive audi­ences. Can you tell us about the exper­i­ence and the responses you get?

The only way to make progress on race rela­tions is to engage differ­ent audi­ences with a range of world­views. So I’ve never been shy about making my argu­ment for racial equal­ity to whoever is will­ing to engage. I’ve writ­ten to share aspects of the Black exper­i­ence in school, the milit­ary, polit­ics, and in Amer­ica writ large. And I rely heav­ily on personal and histor­ical anec­dotes to bring polit­ical and soci­olo­gical research to life.

Some of the recep­tion to my writ­ing in conser­vat­ive public­a­tions has been quite rough, as one might expect. But almost invari­ably, I receive comments or emails from read­ers who appre­ci­ate how the piece helped them see an issue differ­ently or under­stand it more compre­hens­ively.

If we are really seri­ous about tack­ling struc­tural racism, it’s going to require nearly all of us — not just across lines of race and ethni­city, but also across partisan and ideo­lo­gical divides. The whole of the Amer­ican project is contin­gent on enga­ging one another and find­ing common ground. Right now, that isn’t happen­ing as people become more and more polar­ized. But I hope my work can help people of good faith see they aren’t so differ­ent from one another.

3) Fair Votes: Phas­ing Out the Elect­oral College
Wilfrid Codrington and John Kowal

The undemo­cratic nature of the Elect­oral College is facing greater scru­tiny. In two of the last six pres­id­en­tial elec­tions, the system delivered the pres­id­ency to candid­ates who lost the popu­lar vote. It encour­ages campaigns to focus on relat­ively few “battle­ground” states. And it dilutes the influ­ence of voters of color. There are, however, efforts under­way to phase it out. John F. Kowal, the Bren­nan Center’s vice pres­id­ent for programs, and Wilfred U. Codring­ton III, assist­ant professor of law at Brook­lyn Law School and Bren­nan Center fellow, explore this move­ment — and a history of consti­tu­tional reforms that have expan­ded the scope of Amer­ican demo­cracy — in their book, The People’s Consti­tu­tion, to be published in 2021 by The New Press.

What did the 2020 elec­tion teach us about the Elect­oral College?

John F. Kowal: Last year, Donald Trump treated the post–Elec­tion Day period as a sudden-death play­off, as if what had happened in the elec­tion itself didn’t matter. He lobbied state legis­latures to disreg­ard their own laws, and the will of the voters in their states, to appoint their own elect­ors. That kind of beha­vior is made possible by this danger­ous, outmoded, and absurd system of elect­ing pres­id­ents.

What makes the Elect­oral College incom­pat­ible with Amer­ican values?

Wilfred U. Codring­ton III: The Elect­oral College under­mines the funda­mental ideal of polit­ical equal­ity. That was one of the biggest blights in the Consti­tu­tion from the start: there just was no ideal of equal­ity. We know that about half of the men who created the Consti­tu­tion were slave owners. We know that there were no women in the rooms where these decisions were made. It took a civil war to actu­ally enshrine the notion of equal­ity in the Consti­tu­tion. The Elect­oral College was built on the ideas that 1) it’s the states and not the people that matter, and 2) only a certain segment of people have a voice. It was built on a lot of pretty awful comprom­ises to thwart the idea of polit­ical equal­ity.

How do the Elect­oral College’s racist origins continue to mani­fest today?

Codring­ton: Every time there’s been a chance to reform or get rid of the Elect­oral College, it was race that was in the fore­ground, stop­ping change from occur­ring. After the disastrous 1800 elec­tion almost tore the coun­try apart, there was a proposal by a Massachu­setts congress­man to insti­tute a direct popu­lar vote for pres­id­ent. But even he knew it would­n’t be accep­ted because the three-fifths comprom­ise gave south­ern states dispro­por­tion­ate repres­ent­a­tion. It created a polit­ical incent­ive to expand slavery.

Later, in the 1960s and ’70s, when there was a real possib­il­ity of getting rid of the Elect­oral College and 80 percent of the coun­try was behind that reform, it was the south­ern segreg­a­tion­ists, led by Sen. Strom Thur­mond, who thwarted that oppor­tun­ity. He knew the Elect­oral College gave his bloc more clout in the South, where the major­ity of the coun­try’s Black popu­la­tion resides. In a winner-take-all system, Black votes don’t matter, even where they make up a substan­tial minor­ity.

Trump and his enablers looked to inval­id­ate votes in cities like Detroit and Phil­adelphia, and in Fulton and Dekalb Counties in Geor­gia — all places with high concen­tra­tions of Black people.

Disen­fran­chising people of color is not even veiled at this point. But the 2020 elec­tion was determ­ined by a popu­lar vote margin of more than 7 million. Without the Elect­oral College, those schemes to try to over­turn the will of the people would have been mean­ing­less. Instead, what the Elect­oral College does is augment and aggrand­ize the divis­ive racial polit­ics in the coun­try.

Is the National Popu­lar Vote Inter­state Compact (NPV) an effect­ive path to reform?

Codring­ton: The ulti­mate reform would involve elim­in­at­ing the Elect­oral College by consti­tu­tional amend­ment. In the mean­time, the NPV is an interim reform that will hope­fully push the coun­try along.

Under the NPV, the parti­cip­at­ing states would award their elect­oral votes to whoever wins the national popu­lar vote. Were 270 elect­oral votes’ worth of states and juris­dic­tions — the amount required to elect the pres­id­ent — to sign on to the agree­ment, you would have a de facto popu­lar vote elec­tion. Since the NPV was conceived, 16 states and the District of Columbia have joined. That’s nearly 75 percent of the needed total.

In short, the NPV uses the current system to advance the ideal system. The idea is that the popu­lar vote does not neces­sar­ily help Demo­crats or Repub­lic­ans; it helps whoever wins the most votes. It encour­ages candid­ates to appeal to people beyond a hand­ful of swing states.

Kowal: The NPV would address the perni­cious effect of a battle­ground map in which a few states get all the atten­tion. Under the current system, candid­ates have no incent­ive to increase their vote in reli­ably red or blue states, ignor­ing large numbers of voters of color in the process. One advant­age of the NPV is that it’s a lot easier to persuade a number of states equal­ing 270 elect­oral votes to join this compact than it is to get two-thirds of Congress to agree to an amend­ment in the first place. Once the NPV is estab­lished, we believe lawmakers will be more will­ing to devise a more perman­ent solu­tion.

What role does this move­ment play in broader demo­cracy and consti­tu­tional reform efforts?

Codring­ton: The Consti­tu­tion has become more demo­cratic, more inclus­ive, and more legit­im­ate over time. That’s because the fran­chise has been expan­ded and more people have been able to take part in the polit­ics of this coun­try.

For much of Amer­ican history, Black people weren’t even conceived of as people, never mind polit­ical beings. But the 15th Amend­ment ulti­mately changed that. Women were previ­ously not conceived of as inde­pend­ent persons beyond the prop­erty of their fath­ers and husbands. But the 19th Amend­ment began to change that. Eight­een-year-olds weren’t uniformly able to vote across the coun­try until the 26th Amend­ment changed that. What we’ve seen is that people have gotten together and changed the Consti­tu­tion because of move­ments to broaden demo­cracy, to include more people, to make the coun­try more legit­im­ate.

These are all examples of the coun­try moving toward the “more perfect union” described in the Consti­tu­tion’s preamble. Elect­oral College reform is part of the same move­ment — achiev­ing a more demo­cratic system where every­one gets to have a voice in select­ing the single elec­ted offi­cial who’s supposed to repres­ent every­one.

Kowal: We have to look at Elect­oral College reform as part of a larger set of remed­ies for what ails Amer­ican demo­cracy. There’s the contin­ued threat of voter suppres­sion, the outsize role of big money in our elec­tions, the contin­ued reper­cus­sions of partisan gerry­man­der­ing. Reforms that address these issues share the same goal — making our demo­cracy more respons­ive to the will of the people.

4) Crim­inal Justice Reform: From Protest to Policy
L.B. Eisen pullquote: “Mass incarceration  drives and reinforces deep-seated racial inequity. It’s time for transformative change.”

Last summer, millions of Amer­ic­ans took to the streets in the wake of George Floy­d’s killing to protest police brutal­ity and racial injustice. The national reck­on­ing pushed crim­inal justice reform squarely to the fore of public debate ahead of the elec­tion and culmin­ated in signi­fic­ant victor­ies this past Novem­ber, ranging from relaxed drug laws to greater police account­ab­il­ity across the coun­try. Lauren-Brooke Eisen, director of the Justice Program, outlines the unique oppor­tun­it­ies for the Biden admin­is­tra­tion to seize upon this momentum.

During the campaign, Joe Biden conceded that his support for the 1994 Viol­ent Crime Control and Law Enforce­ment Act was a “mistake.” What oppor­tun­it­ies will he have as pres­id­ent to truly reform our justice system?

Local jails and state pris­ons house the major­ity of our coun­try’s incar­cer­ated popu­la­tion — but the federal govern­ment still has a crit­ical role to play in trans­form­ing our crim­inal legal systems. It can spark a paradigm shift in this coun­try. One way the Biden admin­is­tra­tion can start is to halt federal subsidies for mass incar­cer­a­tion. It can do so by work­ing with Congress to enact the Reverse Mass Incar­cer­a­tion Act (RMIA), a bill that would incentiv­ize states to reduce both crime and incar­cer­a­tion. Under the RMIA, states would be free to choose the best path to achiev­ing these goals, rely­ing both on local expert­ise and on federal support.

Certainly, both Demo­crat and Repub­lican lead­ers would be attrac­ted to a program that improves public safety, reduces our reli­ance on an expens­ive and inef­fi­cient system, and recog­nizes the irre­par­able harms of mass incar­cer­a­tion, partic­u­larly on Black and brown people. First proposed by the Bren­nan Center in 2015, the RMIA was intro­duced in two previ­ous congres­sional sessions and was named by Biden as a key prior­ity during his campaign. If the RMIA is enacted, we predict that it could reduce the national prison popu­la­tion by up to 20 percent over the next 10 years, saving state govern­ments as much as $12.1 billion and redu­cing the popu­la­tion of state pris­ons by 260,000.

Because this legis­la­tion would provide much-needed dollars for states, it offers the chance for imme­di­ate and high-impact action on behalf of crim­inal and racial justice reform.

The admin­is­tra­tion should also support federal drug law reform. It can also play a greater role in reima­gin­ing incar­cer­a­tion itself by limit­ing the use of solit­ary confine­ment, improv­ing access to educa­tion, and ensur­ing that incar­cer­ated people are treated with human­ity and dignity.

What can the federal govern­ment do to ensure greater police account­ab­il­ity?

The Biden admin­is­tra­tion, through the Justice Depart­ment, should mandate use-of-force report­ing by all law enforce­ment agen­cies and build a compre­hens­ive data­base. The admin­is­tra­tion can convey its seri­ous­ness by making compli­ance a condi­tion of federal aid.

Addi­tion­ally, the DOJ should resume “pattern or prac­tice” invest­ig­a­tions that focus on systemic prob­lem­atic beha­vior by a police depart­ment and should support legis­la­tion that would provide subpoena power for these invest­ig­a­tions. This would be a 180-degree turn from the previ­ous admin­is­tra­tion’s approach to local police depart­ments that viol­ate civil rights, which opened only one of these invest­ig­a­tions in four years.

The events of 2020 high­lighted how police depart­ments are often called on to respond to situ­ations and prob­lems better addressed by social work­ers and mental health profes­sion­als. The new admin­is­tra­tion should work with Congress to provide more fund­ing to help counties and states imple­ment co-respon­der models where social work­ers or ther­ap­ists arrive on the scene together with police, allow­ing beha­vi­oral health special­ists to offer assist­ance in crisis situ­ations.

This admin­is­tra­tion should also prohibit the trans­fer of milit­ary-grade weapons to state and local law enforce­ment agen­cies. These milit­ary-grade weapons and armored vehicles belong in combat zones, not Amer­ican streets.

In response to Trump’s contro­ver­sial pardons, crit­ics have argued that the pres­id­ent’s clem­ency power needs to be revoked or limited. You take the oppos­ite view. Why should this prac­tice be expan­ded?

Clem­ency is an import­ant but seldom-used tool for check­ing the unjust outcomes produced by the crim­inal legal systems. In fact, as of Octo­ber 2020, more than 13,000 federal clem­ency peti­tions still sat await­ing action.

But the current process is not trans­par­ent. Fact-find­ing takes place behind closed doors and requires seven layers of review. Reas­ons for grants or deni­als are neither explained nor subject to judi­cial review.

Given that there are possibly thou­sands of people who are appro­pri­ate clem­ency candid­ates sitting in federal prison, the new admin­is­tra­tion should increase the number of pardons and clem­ency grants. A new process, inde­pend­ent of the Depart­ment of Justice, should be adop­ted to better routin­ize its use. Clear stand­ards and writ­ten decisions should be made access­ible to the public to help demys­tify how clem­ency oper­ates and secure public confid­ence.

With the pandemic surging among incar­cer­ated popu­la­tions, what meas­ures can the new admin­is­tra­tion prior­it­ize to improve condi­tions in federal pris­ons?

To date, there have been outbreaks at more than 850 jails and pris­ons in the coun­try. At least 372,583 incar­cer­ated people in prison have tested posit­ive for Covid-19, and more than 2,359 have died. And these are just the people we know about.

The Biden admin­is­tra­tion should urge all 50 state governors, many of whom possess the power to grant clem­ency, to cut prison sentences short or pardon offenses outright. The admin­is­tra­tion should encour­age governors and direct­ors of correc­tion to expand their states’ “good time credit” or equi­val­ent programs to reduce over­all incar­cer­a­tion. And it should work with state prosec­utors to keep people who have been convicted of crimes, but not yet sentenced, out of prison for the dura­tion of this health crisis. Essen­tially, we’re asking for the broad­est relief for the largest group of people possible.

At the federal level, the admin­is­tra­tion must direct the federal Bureau of Pris­ons to proact­ively identify and release those who are medic­ally vulner­able, or older, or who may be other­wise eligible for early release under the federal compas­sion­ate release provi­sion.

For years the Bren­nan Center has pushed to reduce the size and scope of our correc­tional system. We saw some reduc­tion in jail popu­la­tions and number of arrests at the begin­ning of the pandemic, but we’ve since seen a huge uptick in jail popu­la­tions. I hope this public health crisis will spark a true rethink­ing of who we can keep away from our vast incar­cer­a­tion infra­struc­ture.

We’ve just witnessed a dramatic uptick in federal execu­tions. What should this admin­is­tra­tion do to exped­ite the erad­ic­a­tion of the federal death penalty?

The pres­id­ent should imple­ment a morator­ium on federal execu­tions. If the Depart­ment of Justice refuses to pursue death penalty sentences, the Supreme Court may be encour­aged to strike it down for good; the pres­id­ent’s and Depart­ment of Justice’s view that the death penalty is uncon­sti­tu­tional may convince the Court that our “stand­ards of decency” have evolved beyond this cruel and unusual prac­tice.

The admin­is­tra­tion should also work with Congress to pass legis­la­tion to imme­di­ately and perman­ently abol­ish the federal death penalty and commute exist­ing federal death sentences to life without parole.

What’s the broader/longer-term outlook for the fight to end mass incar­cer­a­tion?

We have 2.2 million people in our pris­ons and jails, more than 5 million on proba­tion or parole, and 12 million admis­sions cycling through county and city jails every year. I hope we can continue to educate poli­cy­makers and the public that this level of incar­cer­a­tion has massive soci­etal consequences. It drives and rein­forces deep-seated racial inequity and dispro­por­tion­ately punishes both poor and Black Amer­ic­ans. It ruins people’s lives and breaks up famil­ies. It’s time for trans­form­at­ive change. We must work locally and nation­ally to rein­vest in communit­ies we’ve histor­ic­ally divested from, reduce unne­ces­sary contact with law enforce­ment, shorten our overly long and punit­ive sentences, and ulti­mately, not mete out more harm through our crim­inal legal systems.


Brennan Center Live

Onstage to Online

The pandemic forced a pivot to virtual events and brought thou­sands of new view­ers to Bren­nan Center programs.

Journalist Adam Cohen on Injustice at the Supreme Court
Journ­al­ist Adam Cohen on Injustice at the Supreme Court – Adam Cohen joins Melissa Murray, NYU law professor and Bren­nan Center Board member, to discuss his book Supreme Inequal­ity: The Supreme Court’s Fifty-Year Battle for a More Unjust Amer­ica. Cohen discusses how the judi­ciary has become a driver of income inequal­ity by fail­ing to protect the interests of the work­ing poor.
Pandemic Propaganda: A New Electoral Crisis
Pandemic Propa­ganda: A New Elect­oral Crisis – In part­ner­ship with Foreign Affairs magazine, experts discuss how Covid-19 misin­form­a­tion and conspir­acy theor­ies could impact the elec­tions, and how to ensure safe, free, and fair access to the ballot. Clock­wise from top left, Ángel Díaz, coun­sel, Liberty and National Secur­ity Program, Bren­nan Center; Daniel Kurtz-Phelan, exec­ut­ive editor, Foreign Affairs; Ian Vandewalker, senior coun­sel, Demo­cracy Program, Bren­nan Center; and Laura Rosen­ber­ger, director, Alli­ance for Secur­ing Demo­cracy.
Election Expert Richard L. Hasen on Voters’ Distrust
Elec­tion Expert Richard L. Hasen on Voters’ Distrust – Richard L. Hasen, professor of law and polit­ical science at the Univer­sity of Cali­for­nia, Irvine, joins Bren­nan Center Fellow Victoria Bassetti to discuss his book Elec­tion Melt­down: Dirty Tricks, Distrust, and the Threat to Amer­ican Demo­cracy. Hasen iden­ti­fies why voters increas­ingly distrust our elect­oral systems and offers propos­als to boost public confid­ence.
Why Fixing Democracy Is Easier Than You Think
Why Fixing Demo­cracy Is Easier Than You Think – Former Obama speech­writer David Litt speaks with Valerie Jarrett — his White House boss and former senior adviser to the pres­id­ent — about his book Demo­cracy in One Book or Less: How It Works, Why It Does­n’t, and Why Fixing It Is Easier Than You Think. Litt explains our polit­ical dysfunc­tion and how to restore the balance of power.
Dirty Tricks: 9 Falsehoods That Could Undermine the Election
Dirty Tricks: 9 False­hoods That Could Under­mine the Elec­tion – As part of the Public Theat­er’s “Creat­ive Activ­ism: A Day of Art, Ideas, and Action,” Bren­nan Center experts join moder­ator Angelique Roché to outline the lies, miscon­cep­tions, and false argu­ments that voters will contend with in the 2020 elec­tions. Clock­wise from top left, Angelique Roché, journ­al­ist; Sean Morales-Doyle, deputy director, Voting Rights and Elec­tions, Bren­nan Center; Eliza­beth Howard, senior coun­sel, Demo­cracy Program, Bren­nan Center; and Myrna Pérez, director, Voting Rights and Elec­tions, Bren­nan Center.
Historian Anne Applebaum on the “Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism”
Histor­ian Anne Apple­baum on the “Seduct­ive Lure of Author­it­ari­an­ism” – Pulitzer Prize–win­ning histor­ian Anne Apple­baum joins Wash­ing­ton Post colum­nist Max Boot to to discuss her book Twilight of Demo­cracy: The Seduct­ive Lure of Author­it­ari­an­ism. Apple­baum observes patterns among weak­en­ing demo­cra­cies from Poland to the United States, and she describes how the cultural elite can enable auto­cracy.
Voting and Representation Symposium:  New Issues and Challenges (Day 1)
Voting and Repres­ent­a­tion Symposium: New Issues and Chal­lenges (Day 1) – Four panels over the course of two days bring together legal experts and prac­ti­tion­ers to discuss obstacles to voting, fair repres­ent­a­tion, and inclus­ive demo­cracy. Clock­wise from top left, Justin Levitt, asso­ci­ate dean for research and law professor, Loyola Law School; Eliza Sweren-Becker, coun­sel, Demo­cracy Program, Bren­nan Center; Guy-Uriel Charles, Edward and Ellen Schwar­z­man Professor of Law, Duke Law School; and Janai Nelson, asso­ci­ate director-coun­sel, NAACP Legal Defense and Educa­tional Fund.
Incarceration and Inequality
Incar­cer­a­tion and Inequal­ity – Panel­ists discuss a ground­break­ing Bren­nan Center report that shows how involve­ment with the crim­inal justice system lowers indi­vidu­als’ earn­ings and compounds economic and racial dispar­it­ies. Clock­wise from top left, Nicole Austin-Hillery, exec­ut­ive director, U.S. Program, Human Rights Watch; Lauren-Brooke Eisen, director, Justice Program, Bren­nan Center; Ames Grawert, senior coun­sel and John L. Neu Justice Coun­sel, Justice Program, Bren­nan Center; and Wes Moore, CEO, Robin Hood.

Brennan Legacy Awards

A Virtual Celeb­ra­tion

Like so many others, we had to reima­gine our annual in-person gala. This year we held the Bren­nan Legacy Awards Dinner on Octo­ber 20 and convened online with our support­ers and part­ners — a fitting call to action in the urgent weeks lead­ing up to the Novem­ber elec­tion.

A dynamic even­ing video program high­lighted an array of lead­ers for demo­cracy and justice — past Legacy Award honorees, grass­roots allies, civic and busi­ness voices — in conver­sa­tion with Bren­nan Center experts. The event reached its largest audi­ence yet and, more import­ant, allowed our community to coalesce.


The unpre­ced­en­ted crises of 2020 garnered extraordin­ary interest in and commit­ment to our work. We are proud to have built a diverse base of support for our inde­pend­ent, nonpar­tisan approach and solu­tions. We deepened the Center’s long-term strength, as well, by rais­ing dedic­ated fund­ing for Bren­nan Legacy initi­at­ives.


Our Supporters

The Bren­nan Center’s work is made possible through the gener­ous finan­cial support of more than 25,000 indi­vidu­als and famil­ies, char­it­able found­a­tions, law firms, and busi­nesses. We are pleased to recog­nize the follow­ing lead­ers for their part­ner­ship in 2020:*

*Fund­ing levels repres­ent annu­al­ized giving.