Legal Change: Lessons from America's Social Movements

September 29, 2015

The Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law was founded 20 years ago as a living memorial to the values and vision of the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan, Jr.

For two decades, we have fought to reform and revitalize our nation’s systems of democracy and justice, forging a distinct model — part think tank, part legal advocacy group, part communications hub — to spur lasting social change.

In Legal Change: Lessons From America’s Social Movements, the Brennan Center asked a series of thought leaders and social justice advocates — from the fields of philanthropy, academia, organizing, and more — to share their experiences fighting for legal change in this country. We posed the questions: Is it necessary to first win in the court of public opinion before the court of law? Does litigation prompt public attention? Which creates longer-lasting change — a favorable legal ruling, or winning in the democratic branches? What is the role of backlash? What if the public is against your position?

With case studies ranging from the victorious fight for marriage equality to partisan wrangling over the right to vote, reproductive freedom, the environment, and the death penalty, Legal Change grapples with those questions and shares remarkable accounts from decades of legal advocacy in America.

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Introduction

The Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law was founded 20 years ago as a living memorial to the values of the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan, Jr. Known for his expansive vision of the Constitution as a driver of social change and his belief in the transformative power of law, Justice Brennan inspired many reformers moved by the enduring American values of democracy, justice, freedom, and equality.

At the Brennan Center today, we seek to reform and revitalize today’s institutions in the light of those enduring values. We focus on the systems of democracy and justice — the way our nation makes the decisions that most affect ordinary people. We believe those systems are badly in need of repair.

We have forged a distinct model to help spur that change. It is based on the belief that lasting social change comes from the creation of smart policy innovation driven by a motivated public. In contrast to an earlier generation of public interest lawyers, who might have begun by filing a lawsuit to address an injustice, we believe that it is necessary to win in the court of public opinion and to win in a court of law. We have built what we regard as a new model organization: part think tank, part legal advocacy organization, and part communications hub.

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We put this model into action most visibly in the fight to protect the vote. In 2011, 19 states passed 27 new measures to make it harder to vote — the most since the Jim Crow era. Minorities, students, and the poor were hardest hit. These sudden shifts drew little sustained attention. In October 2011, we released Voting Law Changes in 2012, which rigorously reported that 5 million citizens could find it harder or impossible to vote. It was the lead story in The New York Times. And it fostered a fierce public debate. The Justice Department joined the fight. Together with allies, we worked to shift the terms of public debate. So that when the Center and other voting rights groups went to court the next year, every single one of the worst new laws was blocked, blunted, postponed, or repealed. These rulings came from Republican and Democratic judges, state and federal. It was a tremendous victory for voters, and democracy.

Today we are engaged in a similar drive to move the law across our issues. We are helping lead a decades-long drive to overturn Citizens United and other misguided Supreme Court decisions that have given us a dystopian campaign finance system. We are pushing our signature proposal for universal, automatic voter registration — a breakthrough reform passed most recently by California’s legislature. We are working to harness the tools of economics and the credible voices of law enforcement to end mass incarceration. And we are working to protect constitutional values as the nation enters the 15th year of its fight against terrorism.

In all this, we take our cue from Abraham Lincoln’s admonition at another time of constitutional debate: “Public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it, nothing can succeed. Consequently he who moulds public sentiment goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions. He makes statutes and decisions possible or impossible to be executed.”

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As we proudly mark the Brennan Center’s 20th anniversary, we thought it a good time to dig deeper into the lessons learned from fights in which we have played a part, and from other social movements, too. Some have remarkable examples of success. The victorious fight for marriage equality is the most obvious stunning illustration. The path forged by gun rights activists to change the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Second Amendment is another. Deep partisan wrangling over the right to vote, reproductive freedom, the environment, and the death penalty has caused these issues to be among the most divisive of our time. Conversely, for criminal justice reform efforts, transpartisan alliances are driving momentum for change.

We are honored and grateful that so many thought leaders representing these and other issues — as well as perspectives from philanthropy, academia, and organizing — are part of this publication.

To each of the contributors, we asked:

  • Is it necessary to first win in the court of public opinion before the court of law? Or, conversely, does litigation prompt or direct public attention? What are the risks and benefits of court rulings that are ahead of public opinion?
  • Which has a better, longer lasting chance — a favorable legal ruling or winning in the democratic branches? Is the goal legal change ... or change?
  • What to do when the thing you care about is the thing you cannot say out loud? Or when the public is against you? How to grapple when the issue is divisive racially or in partisan terms, but strategy suggests reaching a broader majoritarian audience?

Ultimately, we at the Brennan Center believe the institutions of American democracy themselves must be the subject of our energy and efforts. Those institutions are badly corroded. Voter turnout in 2014 plunged to its lowest level in seven decades. Government is paralyzed, polarized, overwhelmed by the new tide of dark money loosed by the Supreme Court’s rulings in Citizens United and other cases.

The kind of sweeping reform of the institutions by which decisions get made requires deep, sustained, and at times jarring rethinking. The ramifications go well beyond any one set of issues. Those who care most about the social movements covered in this volume will find it increasingly challenging to hold ground or win victories so long as the political and justice systems tilt ever more sharply toward an ideological extreme.

And the kind of institutional reform needed to win will not come from a lawsuit, but rather an upsurge of citizen creativity, innovation, and engagement.

Our deepest thanks to the talented staff and scholars who do this work, especially our colleagues at the Brennan Center; the funders and donors for their invaluable support and for making this work possible; and the allied organizations from myriad fields who have given us the benefit of their wisdom and strategic insight in this volume. We look forward to your partnership as we fight the good fight in the months and years to come.

Michael Waldman
President
Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law

Legal Change: Lessons From America’s Social Movements