National Lawyers Guild

The Sugar Law Center is proud to have been founded as a project of the National Lawyers Guild, with which the Center remains closely affiliated today. Through our work, we help to reaffirm the NLG’s basic principle that human rights are more important than property rights. Past presidents and current leaders of the national and local NLG sit on our board and guide our organization.

The National Lawyers Guild is a national nonprofit legal and political organization of lawyers, legal workers, law students and jailhouse lawyers. The Guild is the oldest and most extensive network of public-interest and human rights activists working within the legal system.

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. The organization has always seen questions of economic and social class as inextricably intertwined with domestic and international justice issues. While this philosophy led to the Guild’s creation of the Sugar Law Center in 1990-91, it was not new to the Guild at that time; the critical importance of economic justice has been at the center of the Guild’s work since its founding in 1937.

The Guild was founded as an association of progressive lawyers and jurists who advocated for the reconstruction of legal values to emphasize human rights over property rights. In the 1930s, Guild lawyers helped organize major unions and supported the New Deal. In the ’40s, Guild lawyers fought in World War II, helped prosecute Nazis at Nuremberg and helped draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. During the McCarthy era, Guild members represented thousands of victims of anticommunist hysteria; unlike all other national civil liberties groups and bar associations, the Guild refused to require “loyalty oaths” of its members.

In the 1960s, the Guild set up offices in the South and organized thousands of volunteer lawyers and law students to support the civil rights movement long before the federal government or other bar associations were involved. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Guild members represented Vietnam War draft resisters, antiwar activists, and the Chicago 7 after the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention. Guild offices in Asia represented GIs who opposed the war. Guild members argued 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 his eventual resignation.

In the 1980s and ’90s, the Guild pioneered the “necessity defense,” supported the antinuclear movement, and began working systematically on immigration issues. Guild lawyers introduced legal strategies for holding foreign human rights violators accountable in U.S. courts. The Guild published the first major work on sexual orientation and the law. In 1989, the Guild prevailed in a lawsuit against the FBI for illegal political surveillance of legal activist organizations, including the Guild. Guild members mobilized opposition to the Gulf War, defended the rights of Haitian refugees, opposed the U.S. embargo of Cuba, and took on the issue of widespread police violence. Guild lawyers won the first case in the World Court that declared use of nuclear weapons a violation of international law.

As the 20th century came to a close, the Guild was defending environmental and labor rights activists and critics of globalization from Seattle to D.C. to L.A. Guild members were playing an active role in encouraging cross-border labor organizing.

Today, the intertwining of governmental and corporate power, epitomized by Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission; the seizure of increased executive power; the attack on civil liberties after the 9/11 tragedy; the scapegoating of Muslim Americans and of Middle Eastern and Arab immigrants; and the creation of McCarthy-esque “antiterrorism” measures have demonstrated that the Guild must once again play the role for which history and experience has prepared its members.

Across the nation Guild members are demanding that the U.S. government respect civil liberties, the Constitution and international law at home and abroad. The National Lawyers Guild sees that a wide range of social, political, and legal issues, such as racism, sexism, homophobia, environmental destruction, immigrant-bashing, labor issues, and voting rights, are intertwined with questions of economic justice. Guild members are using their experience and professional skills to help build the 21st-century grassroots movements to protect civil liberties and defend democracy.

The Sugar Law Center’s staff have assumed leadership in both local and national Guild activities throughout Sugar Law’s existence. While Sugar Law has partners throughout the country in many different political and organizational contexts, the National Lawyers Guild remains our home and inspiration. To learn more about the Guild, visit