When the Alliance for Justice was formed in 1979, Ronald Reagan was on his way to becoming president and ushering in nearly three decades of Washington domination by the conservative wing of the Republican Party. So the liberal alliance has spent most of its life in Washington's political minority, but fortuitous timing infused optimism into its 30th anniversary party last month.
Several hundred people gathered at for a luncheon at Washington's Capitol Hilton hotel, where they congratulated one president - alliance founder Nan Aron - and talked about the opportunities created by the election of another, President Barack Obama.
Obama had recently nominated Sonia Sotomayor to the U.S. Supreme Court, and the fresh conservative attacks on her prompted speakers to swing back. Dahlia Lithwick, who covers legal affairs for Slate, delivered an entertaining discussion about empathy: how it had become "a dirty word" among conservative pundits after Obama said he was looking for that trait in judges.
"What it doesn't mean," Lithwick said, "is that judges side with the party who makes them cry more." Gara LaMarche, CEO of the Atlantic Philanthropies, took on the heavier task of discussing the need to repair "the broken infrastructure of justice in America."
Among the signs of degradation: "a 40-year campaign - ever since Nixon - to gut the federal courts of their important role in guaranteeing the protection of constitutional rights"; inadequate legal representation for criminal defendants "and those seeking a fair shake in the civil justice system"; and federal courts that "have become so consistently anti-plaintiff in employment discrimination cases that they are in danger of abandoning their role as a forum in which the powerless can seek redress from the powerful," LaMarche said.
The alliance describes itself as an "association of environmental, civil rights, mental health, women's, children's and consumer advocacy organizations." It trains those organizations to be public policy advocates, produces publications and other materials to help like-minded groups pursue public policy goals, and works to appoint progressive judges and defeat some conservative judicial nominees.
The alliance's approximately 80 members include the Center for Children's Law and Policy, the Children's Defense Fund, the Juvenile Law Center, the Justice Policy Institute and the National Center for Youth Law. Contact: (202) 822-6070, www.afj.org.