A History of the Portland NLG

By Scott Lee Sharp

The Oregon Chapter of the NLG was founded in the 1930s. One of the first descriptions of the Oregon Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild described it as part of “[a] National Organization of ‘left wing’ attorneys with local chapters existing in many parts of the country. The local group, through its ‘Civil Liberties Committee,’ has entered into the communists inspired campaign to abolish the Portland Police ‘Red Squad,’ taking the investigation of communist activities out of the hands of duly constituted law-enforcement agencies.” The Red Squad or “Communist Detail” of the then Portland Police Department, was a “small but active Division of the Department since the early 1920’s, preoccupied with I.W.W. excitement.”

The Oregon Chapter of the NLG continued its efforts until it lost much of its membership when Hitler and Stalin agreed to divide Poland . The Oregon chapter continued to lose membership up until it was completely destroyed by McCarthyism. The resurrection of the Oregon Chapter in Portland occurred after two notable NLG conventions, namely the 1970 Convention when law students were admitted into the NLG and the 1972 Convention when legal workers were granted full admission. The Portland Chapter was officially reestablished after that 1972 convention and its members were placed under surveillance and investigation by several government agencies including the FBI, CIA, and INS.

Government informers labeled the recently founded Portland Chapter “Subversive” in an FBI memo from May, 1972. Other FBI memoranda indicate that it was reopening its investigation of Portland Chapter members in July, 1972. Nearly a year later the FBI described the Portland Chapter as a “Communist front organization of lawyers and law students dedicated to Communist Party USA and New Left ideals for radical change of the social, economic, and judicial systems in the United States .” “[NLG] Attorneys . . . are publicly known to support radical and unpopular causes and to select as their clients individuals charged with causes that have potential direct or indirect political overtones” , a description which the chapter still strives for.

FBI infiltration continued with agents attending the Austin , Texas Convention in 1973. Investigations continued in to the Portland Chapter’s membership including: Robert Wollheim, whom the FBI labeled as an extremist ; Jay Roth; Robert Burkett; Ronald Schiffman; and Patricia Watson; among others. The FBI was grouped together with other groups based on stated and/or perceived policies. Those groups included the Weatherman Faction of the S.D.S.; Venceremos Organization; and the Revolutionary Union. The investigations were pursuant to those predecessors of the USA PATRIOT ACTs I and II: Title 18, US Code, Sections 2385 (Advocating Overthrow of the Government), 2383 (Rebellion or Insurrection), 2384 (Seditious Conspiracy); or Title 50, US Code, Sections 781-810 (Internal Security Act of 1950 and the Communist Control Act of 1954). The investigations continued until at least 1974 when the Portland Chapter had an internal rift with some members moving to Los Angeles and some staying in Portland .

Today the Portland Chapter of the NLG has an active membership with an exceptionally strong showing by law students at Northwestern School of Law. The Policy Board of the Portland Chapter meets once a month and continues to draw new members. Guild members have been and are active in a wide range of activities both in and out of the courtroom.

Recently, Guild members won an Oregon Appellate case, St. v. Ausmus , 336 OR 493 (2004). Ausmus held the Disorderly Conduct statute unconstitutional as far as it prohibited people from “[congregating] with other persons in a public place and [refusing] to comply with a lawful order of the police to disperse[.]”

Guild lawyers and law students have attended numerous demonstrations, protests, and other events as legal observers. Through the efforts of the legal observers, a group of Guild members recently settled a 1984 case with the City of Portland over the rights of demonstrators. The demonstrators and attorneys were awarded approximately 845,000 arising from incidents of police brutality at a demonstration against the visiting president bush. Numerous articles were written. The video recordings done by the legal observers were shocking and explicit and were no small part of the City of Portland ‘s decision to settle. That and other similar lawsuits allowed Alan Graf, former long-time Policy Board Chair of the Portland NLG Chapter, to launch the North West Center for Constitutional Rights, now fully staffed and operational in Downtown Portland.

Steve Goldberg fought a long and worthy battle with Emiliano Santiago, ending after a 9th Circuit decision. Santiago ‘s enlistment in the National Guard was extended by twenty-seven years. Goldberg and Santiago challenged in court the Army’s stop-loss policy, which involuntarily extended Santiago ‘s service member’s military obligation.

Steve Goldberg, International Committee is a longtime Guild member who, with Barbara Dudley, and current Portland NLG Policy Board Chair, Scott Sharp, has also helped launch the Military Counseling Project. The Counseling Project is a system through which Lewis and Clark law school students respond to phone calls from people trying to find out about their options for obtaining military discharges. The Counseling Project was made possible by a grant from the McKenzie River Gathering . It started out with one law student and one volunteer taking two to three phone calls per month last year. Now several students field approximately thirty phone calls per month and attend events to counter military recruiters at high schools, community colleges, and other events haunted by military recruiters.

Adam Arms also spearheaded an effort against the “Sit-Lie” ordinance in Downtown Portland. The ordinance was clearly written to criminalize homelessness. Arms acting through the Northwest Constitutional Rights Center won a major victory with the holding by Circuit Court Judge Marylin E. Litzenberger, that the “Sit-Lie” ordinance is unconstitutional .

The high energy of the NLG members in Portland is infectious. The Portland Chapter, in preparing for this convention, ten years after the last NLG Convention in Portland , has really gone all out to make this a successful and memorable Convention. From the panels and workshops, to the numerous activities easily accessible from Downtown Portland, to the celebrations and entertainment of Michael Franti and friends, and local musical talent, March 4th, we hope you come and enjoy the fellowship of the NLG membership in our active and energetic city.

Boesen, Chris; Esterly H.M.; Hart, Alan; Lenon, Harlowe; Solomon, Gus; and Wilson Thomas, Report of the Civil Liberties Committees National Lawyers Guild Oregon Chapter, pp 51-52, May 24, 1938 (quoting from Radical Activities Bulletin, Jan. 21, 1938).

Id. at 5.

FBI memorandum, July 20, 1972 obtained through FOIA requests.

FBI letter to Portland , May 10, 1973 .

DOJ memorandum, p. 8, Sept. 14, 1973 .


Id. at 6.

Id. pp 8-9.

FBI memorandum, June 28, 1974 .

For more information see http://www.nwcrc.org

For more information see http://law.lclark.edu/org/nlg/


History of the National Organization

Founded in 1937 the National Lawyers Guild was the nation’s first racially integrated bar association. The first Guild lawyers supported President Roosevelt’s New Deal, assisted the emerging industrial labor movement, and opposed the racial segregation policies of the American Bar Association and the larger society. During its 65 year history, the NLG has been an important part of the American people’s struggle for real democracy, for economic and social justice, and against oppression and discrimination based on race, ethnicity, immigration status, class, gender or sexual orientation. Consistent with its commitment to ensuring fairness and equality for all people, law students, non-lawyer legal workers and inmate legal experts are full members. The Guild elected its first African-American president in the early 1950s and its first female president in the 1960s. The first legal worker president was elected in 1996.

In the 1930s, NLG lawyers helped organize the United Auto Workers (UAW), the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) and supported the New Deal in the face of determined ABA opposition. In the 1940s, Guild lawyers fought against fascists in the Spanish Civil War and WW II, and helped prosecute Nazis at Nuremburg. Guild lawyers fought racial discrimination in cases such as Hansberry v. Lee, the case that struck down segregationist Jim Crow laws in Chicago and entered our culture as Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun.” The Guild was one of the non-governmental organizations (NGOs) selected by the U.S. Government to officially represent the American people at the founding of the U.N. in 1945.

In the late 1940s and 50s, Guild members founded the first national plaintiffs personal injury bar association that became the American Trial Lawyers Association (ATLA), and pioneered the storefront law offices for low-income clients that became the model for the community-based offices of the Legal Services Corporation. During the “McCarthy era,” Guild members represented the Hollywood Ten, the Rosenbergs, and thousands of victims of the anti-communist hysteria. Unlike all other national civil liberties groups and bar associations, the Guild refused to require “loyalty oaths” of its members and the NLG was unjustly labeled “subversive” by the government. The Justice Department admitted the charges were baseless after ten years of federal litigation.

In the 1960s, the Guild set up offices in the South and organized thousands of volunteer lawyers and law students to provide legal support for the Civil Rights Movement long before the federal government was involved. Guild members represented the families of murdered civil rights activists Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman, who were assassinated by local law enforcement members of the Ku Klux Klan. Guild-initiated lawsuits brought the Kennedy Justice Department directly into the Civil Rights struggle in Mississippi and challenged the seating of the all-white Mississippi delegation at the 1964 Democratic Convention. Guild lawyers defended thousands of civil rights activists who were arrested for exercising basic rights and established new federal constitutional protections in ground-breaking Supreme Court cases such as: Dombrowski v. Pfister, which enjoined thousands of racially-motivated state court criminal prosecutions; Goldberg v. Kelly, the case that established the concept of “entitlements” to social benefits which require Due Process protections; and, Monell v. Dept. of Public Services, which held municipalities liable for brutal police employees.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Guild members represented Vietnam War draft resisters, antiwar activists and the Chicago 7, after the 1968 Chicago Convention. NLG offices in Asia represented GIs who opposed the war. Guild members argued U.S. v. U.S. District Court, the Supreme Court case that established that Nixon could not ignore the Bill of Rights in the name of “national security” and led to the Watergate hearings and Nixon’s resignation. Guild members defended FBI-targeted members of the Black Panther Party, the American Indian Movement, the Puerto Rican independence movement and helped expose illegal F.B.I and C.I.A. surveillance, infiltration and disruption tactics (called COINTELPRO), that the U.S. Senate “Church Commission” hearings detailed in 1975-76 and which led to enactment of the Freedom of Information Act and other specific limitations on federal investigative power. The NLG supported self-determination for Palestine, opposed apartheid in South Africa, at a time when the U.S. Government still called Nelson Mandela a “terrorist” and began the fight against the blockade of Cuba. During this period, NLG members founded other important civil rights and human rights institutions, such as the Center Constitutional Rights, the National Conference of Black Lawyers, the Meiklejohn Civil Liberties Institute in Berkeley, San Francisco’s New College School of Law and the Peoples Law School in Los Angeles.

In the 1980s, the Guild pioneered the “necessity defense” and used international law in support of the anti-nuclear movement and began challenging the use nuclear weapons under international law. This eventually resulted in the World Court declaration that nuclear weapons violate international law in a case argued by Guild lawyers more than a decade later. The NLG National Immigration Project began working systematically on immigration issues, spurred by the need to represent Central American refugees and asylum activists fleeing U.S. sponsored “terror” Nicaragua and El Salvador. The Guild organized “People’s Tribunals” to expose the illegality of U.S. intervention in Central America that even more widely known as the “Iran-Contra” scandal. The Guild prevailed in a lawsuit against the F.B.I. for carrying out illegal political surveillance of legal, activist organizations, including the Guild.

In the 1990s, Guild members mobilized opposition to the Gulf War, defended the rights of Haitian refugees escaping from a U.S.- sponsored dictatorship, opposed the U.S. embargo of Cuba and began to define a new civil rights agenda that includes the right to employment, education, housing and health care. Legal theories for holding foreign human rights violators accountable in U.S. courts based on early 19th Century statutes were pioneered by Guild lawyers. The Guild began developing an analysis of the impact of “globalization” on human rights and the environment several years before the Seattle demonstrations, and our members have played an active role opposing NAFTA and in facilitating and supporting the growing movement for “globalization of justice. As the 20th Century came to a close, the Guild was defending anti-globalization, environmental and labor rights activists from Seattle, to D.C., to L.A. Guild members were playing an active role in encouraging cross-border labor organizing and in exposing the a buses in the maquiladoras on the U.S.-Mexico Border. The NLG’s Project for Human, Economic and Environmental Defense (HEED) and the Committee on Corporations, the Constitution & Human Rights began working on “globalization” issues.

Past NLG President Bruce Nestor legal observes a rally for Mumia Abu-Jamal.

At the turn of the 21st Century, globalization of information and economic activity is a fact of life, but so is the globalization of extremes in wealth and poverty. Guild members have long recognized that neither democracy nor social justice is possible, internationally or domestically, in the face of vast disparities in individual and social wealth. In short, we have always seen questions of economic and social class as inextricably intertwined with most domestic and international justice issues.

Domestically, the betrayal of democracy and the Supreme Court’s integrity in Bush v. Gore made clear that the struggle for real democracy in the U.S. is far from over. The intertwining of governmental power with the influence of corporations, epitomized by the ENRON debacle, has confirmed fighting corporate power will be a major challenge for the American people in the new century. The seizure of governmental power, the huge buildup of military might and the attack on civil liberties after the 9-11 tragedy, together with the scapegoating of Muslims, Middle-Eastern immigrants and the re-creation of McCarthyesque “anti-terrorism” measures, has demonstrated that the Guild must, once again, play the role for which history and experience has prepared its members.

Guild members lobbied Congress and worked with the House Judiciary Committee in a failing effort to turn back the worst aspects of the 2001 USA PATRIOT Act. Guild members filed the first challenges to the detention of prisoners from Afghanistan and to the use of military tribunals. Across the nation, Guild members are demanding that civil liberties be protected and that the U.S. Government respect the Constitution and international law at home and abroad. Guild members are defending activists, representing immigrants facing deportation, testifying in federal and state legislatures against civil liberties cutbacks. They are using their experience and professional skills to help build the 21st Century grassroots movements that will be necessary to protect civil liberties and to defend democracy now and in the future.

Professor Peter Erlinder, Past-President, NLG (1993-97)