Practical Engagements

The Columbia Center for Contemporary Critical Thought seeks to bridge theory and practice. Along this dimension, the center directly engages contemporary social issues through practical engagements, including litigation and public policy interventions. It brings contemporary theory to bear on current social problems, primarily in the area of punishment practices and penal law.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 finally 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 Oct.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. 

Litigating Executive Power

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. 

Police Accountability

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.