Practical Engagements

The Initiative for a Just Society and the Columbia Center for Contemporary Critical Thought seek to bridge theory and practice. Along this dimension, the IJS and CCCCT directly engage contemporary social issues through practical engagements, including litigation, organizing, policy interventions, education and the arts. They bring contemporary theory to bear on current social problems, primarily in the area of abolition, indigent defense, protest, and antiracism.

Abolition: A Social Justice Practicum with Bernard E. Harcourt and Omavi Shukur

Fall 2021 | Tuesday 4:20-6:20

The syllabus is available here.

This course will explore the social justice road to punitive abolition - to the abolition of capital punishment and the dominant punitive punishment paradigm in the United States. It will investigate how abolition of the death penalty might be achieved in the country, but also what it might mean to imagine abolition in the context of policy, of the prison, and also of punishment more broadly. 

Death Penalty Litigation

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit in Atlanta appointed Professor Bernard E. Harcourt to represent an Alabama inmate who has been on death row for 26 years. Doyle Lee Hamm appealed the denial of his federal habeas corpus petition by the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Alabama in Birmingham. Doyle Lee Hamm has been on Alabama’s death row at Donaldson Correctional Facility for over thirty years, since 1987. His case has now been resolved.

Professor Bernard E. Harcourt began representing David Wilson at the federal habeas stage in 2019. David Wilson has been on Alabama's death row at Holman Prison since 2008. His federal habeas petition is currently before the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama, Southern Division. 

Police Shooting Litigation

Along with co-counsel at the NAACP LDF and Loevy & Loevy, IJS Practitioner-in-Residence Omavi Shukur is representing the family of Mr. Bradley Blackshire  in a case against the City of Little Rock after former Little Rock Police Officer Charles Starks shot and killed Mr. Blackshire in 2019. The case is in the process of being settled. The legal team is being assisted by students in the Abolition Practicum.

Line 3 Pipeline Protest Litigation

Bernard E. Harcourt and co-counsel Thomas A. Durkin are representing seven individuals who were arrested in June 2021 at the protests against the expansion of the Line 3 pipeline in Minnesota. Their clients were charged with Trespass on Critical Public Service, Facilities, Pipeline, Utility; Unlawful Assembly; and Public Nuisance. The legal team is being assisted by students in the Abolition Practicum.

Guantanamo Bay Litigation

Along with lead counsel Thomas A. Durkin (Durkin & Roberts), Mark Maher (Reprieve US), and Shelby Sullivan-Bennis, Professor Bernard E. Harcourt is representing a man now formerly imprisoned at Guantánamo Bay, Abdul Latif Nasser.

On July 19, 2021, Mr. Nasser was returned home to Morocco and has been reunited with his family after almost 20 years of detention at Guantanamo Bay. Mr. Nasser had been held at Guantanamo since May 2002, never charged with any crime during his two decades of imprisonment at Guantanamo.

Standing Rock Litigation

From April 2016 to February 2017, tens of thousands of individuals, known as “Water Protectors,” united in opposition to the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) at camps located near the intersection of Highway 1806 and the Cannonball River in south-central North Dakota. Since the movement first began, Water Protectors relied heavily on Highway 1806, the largest and most direct road connecting the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation and the various camps on its northern border to Bismarck and Mandan. Highway 1806 served as the primary route by which Water Protectors (and press) traveled to the camps, gathered supplies at Bismarck and Mandan, and sought medical treatment at the nearest major hospital. Moreover, because DAPL crosses Highway 1806 several miles north of the camps, in an area rich with sacred and ceremonial sites, Highway 1806 also served as the primary means by which Water Protectors traveled to assemble, speak, and pray in opposition to the construction of DAPL. On October 24, 2016, Defendants closed Highway 1806 from Fort Rice to Fort Yates. This road closure was directed only at Water Protectors: residents of Fort Rice were allowed to drive southbound on Highway 1806 as were employees of DAPL. Plaintiffs suffered substantial and irreparable injury as a result of Defendants’ actions.

Life in Prison Without Parole

Phillip Tomlin was convicted of capital murder in Mobile County, Ala., in 1978 and sentenced to death. After 27 years on death row, Tomlin's capital sentence was vacated in 2004 and he was resentenced to life imprisonment without parole (LWOP). For the past 36 years, Tomlin has been challenging the various judicial reinterpretations of the 1975 Alabama Death Penalty Statute.

In June 2014, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit in Atlanta agreed to hear his challenge to the 1975 statute under which he is sentenced to LWOP. Tomlin filed his brief at the 11th Circuit on October 6, 2014, with the assistance of the Center. On July 16, 2015, the Eleventh Circuit vacated the district court's denial of the habeas corpus petition and remanded for further review of the LWOP challenge. 

With the assistance of the Center, Tomlin returned to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Alabama and pursued his habeas corpus claim. The district court denied his challenge on April 19, 2018 and denied reconsideration on February 4, 2019. The Center sought certiorari from the United States Supreme Court and was denied on June 1, 2020. Following the publication of an article on Justice Sotamayor's criticisms of the 11th Circuit's review of prisoner appeals in the New York Times, the Center filed a petition for rehearing on June 26, 2020. The petition for rehearing was denied on August 3, 2020.

Litigating Islamophobia

Attorney Thomas A. Durkin and Professor Bernard E. Harcourt represented pro bono Dr. Al Homssi who was adversely affected by the Executive Order banning Muslims entered on January 29, 2017. They challenged the constitutionality of the E.O. under the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Columbia Law School student Laura Baron (CLS '18) was the associate on this case and provided extraordinary assistance. 

Mass Bail Out

On October 1, 2018, grassroots organizations from around New York (The Vera Institute for Justice, The Bail Project, JustLeadership USA, Vocal New York, the Katal Center), who had been leading justice reform work for years and advocating for the rights of the incarcerated, teamed up with the Robert F. Kennedy Center for human rights to stage the largest bail out action for women and youth in U.S. history. This action, the Mass Bail Out, seeks to free 400 women and 50 youth who are currently held on Rikers Island and surrounding New York City jail facilities. These individuals have not been convicted of a crime.

Prison Health Initiative

Professor Bernard E. Harcourt teaches his first-year Legal Methods students the ethics and practice of law through an ongoing case arising out of his death penalty litigation. After reading a letter from one of his clients describing the denial of Hepatitis C medication to many in the prison, himself included, a group of his past and present students were galvanized to action.

Their research revealed troubling shifts in pricing of standard pharmaceuticals Hepatitis C as well the blatantly unconstitutional but generally accepted unconstitutional health conditions of prisoners, who are ironically the only American residents with a constitutional right to health care.

Justice in Education Initiative

The Justice in Education Initiative, established by The Heyman Center and the Center for Justice with support from the Mellon Foundation, offers educational opportunities in prisons, jail, and for formerly incarcerated individuals.


Columbia Law School faculty members discuss and provide information on the St. Louis grand jury decision not to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson on any charges related to the death of Michael Brown and the Richmond County (Staten Island) grand jury decision not to indict New York City police officers on any charges regarding the homicide of Eric Garner.

Rethinking Justice Internship

The Rethinking Justice Internship is a new opportunity for Columbia undergraduates. Students will work closely with the director of the program, Professor Christia Mercer (Philosophy), and other professors to help organize and teach 4-week mini-courses in the Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC), a maximum security Federal Prison in Brooklyn.

Protest Litigation