Left: Arthur Kinoy Center: Ralph Nader Right: Stanley Van Ness
NJA is part of a multi-state network of similar public interest justice centers that respond to local needs and opportunities for positive change–and sometimes join forces on collaborative projects–under the auspices of the national Appleseed organization.
Consumer advocate Ralph Nader, the driving force behind the creation of the national group, graduated from Princeton University in 1955 and Harvard Law School in 1958. He believed that those who are fortunate enough to attend such elite institutions have the ability and the obligation to give back by not only utilizing their own power, privilege and wealth to help society but also by tapping their alumni networks for that same purpose.
Nader acted on this principle in founding a number of public interest organizations, including the Center for the Study of Responsive Law, the Public Interest Research Group, the Center for Auto Safety, Public Citizen, Clean Water Action Project, and the Project for Corporate Responsibility
In 1989, he joined with his undergraduate classmates to establish Princeton Project 55. Now known as Princeton AlumniCorps, it provides new Princeton graduates with fellowships at public interest organizations around the U.S. Fellows are matched with alumni mentors and attend regular seminars organized by local committees. There have been more than 1,500 fellows thus far, working in sectors such as urban policy, healthcare, mass incarceration, climate change, educational equity, and civil rights,
Four year later, at his 35th Harvard Law reunion in 1993, Nader and several fellow alums created the Appleseed Foundation, a national organization whose purpose was to establish and guide state-based public interest law centers to work for systemic reforms. It is now known as the Appleseed Network.
Co-founder Richard Medalie reported to classmates that the name “Appleseed” was chosen “because our concept is to plant a seed from which a public service activity involving lawyers, young and old, can grow and develop across the country.” Medalie, a prominent Washington, D.C. attorney, was the foundation’s first executive director.
Another founder, the distinguished legal scholar Arthur Miller, a longtime Harvard Law professor now at New York University School of Law, has written: “I don’t think any of us in that original group–in our wildest optimism–could have anticipated Appleseed would have developed this way. It was a group of friends who had an idea of how to utilize the talents of accomplished lawyers for the public good.”
Appleseed’s “task-force” approach is to pursue system-wide reform through independent centers that utilize differing mixes of various tools—litigation, legislation, rulemaking, policy analysis and research and networking with community groups—on issues that vary from center to center based on local needs, priorities, resources and opportunities. Some do no litigation whatsoever.
The first centers were set up in D.C and Boston.
NJA was the third, and the first of the Appleseed centers that was not created by the Appleseed Foundation but chose to affiliate with it. And it had its own iconic founding figure: civil rights lawyer Arthur Kinoy, who also helped found the Center for Constitutional Rights.
Kinoy is perhaps best known as the appellate lawyer for the Chicago Seven—–protesters against the Vietnam War who faced federal charges of conspiring to incite riots at the 1968 Democratic National convention in Chicago—and for representing victims of McCarthyism—individuals summoned to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities during the anti-Communist “Red Scare” of the 1950s and 60s. Kinoy was famously removed from a committee hearing in a 1966 incident pictured on the cover of his autobiography, Rights on Trial: The Odyssey of a People’s Lawyer. His subsequent conviction for disorderly conduct was overturned on appeal in 1968.
Kinoy, also a Harvard Law graduate, class of 1941, lived in Montclair and taught at Rutgers Law School in Newark from 1964 until 1992. During that time, he won several landmark U.S. Supreme Court victories establishing that: federal judges can stop enforcement of laws that have a chilling effect on free speech; President Richard Nixon had no ‘inherent power’ to wiretap domestic political organizations; and U.S. Senate committee counsel were not immune from suit for violation of citizens’ civil rights.
After Kinoy was forced to retire at 70 on account of his age, his colleagues on the Rutgers Law faculty passed a resolution to establish a public interest center that he would head.
At the request of Appleseed board member Bertrand Pogrebin, Kinoy agreed that the new center would be part of the nascent Appleseed network.
Renee Steinhagen, then practicing labor and employment law with the Nutley firm of Ball Livingston and assisting with Kinoy’s rights seminar at Rutgers, helped him launch the new public interest center, drafting its incorporation papers. She became the founding Executive Director in 1998 and continues in that role.
Over the years, the New Jersey Appleseed board has counted among its members such prominent lawyers as Robert DelTufo, a former New Jersey Attorney General and U.S. Attorney; Stanley Strauss, whose family business, Skinder-Strauss, owns the New Jersey Lawyer’s Diary & Manual, and, at one time owned the New Jersey Law Journal; William Buckman, the civil rights attorney who exposed racial profiling by the New Jersey State Police; and Bernard Bressler, founder of the Bressler, Amery & Ross firm.
In its early years, NJA established the Stanley Van Ness Leadership Award in Public Interest and bestowed it initially on the man after whom it was named. Van Ness was New Jersey’s first Public Advocate, a cabinet-level position that was the first such office created in the nation. From 1974 to 1982, Van Ness directed a program that sparked health care, environmental, energy, employment and educational reforms and was involved in issues such as zoning for low-income housing, public access to the beaches of shore towns and conditions in state mental hospitals.
Prior to that, as state Public Defender, one of Van Ness’s accomplishments was helping convince the New Jersey Supreme Court to strike down the state death penalty as unconstitutional.
Other recipients of the Van Ness Award include U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Judith Wizmur and state Senator Richard Codey, who took over as governor after James McGreevey resigned in 2004.
Another NJA award, the Eric Neisser Public Service Award, honors civil liberties lawyer Neisser, who at various times was legal director of the ACLU-NJ, acting dean at Rutgers School of Law in Newark and dean of Franklin Pierce Law Center in Concord, N.H.
He helped set precedents that limited random drug testing of employees, restricted police power to look up personal information through license plate searches and barred police stops of motorists absent reasonable suspicion.
Among others, the Neisser Award has been bestowed upon Strauss and NJA board member Sue Lederman, a now retired Kean University professor and League of Women Voters president.