The David Carliner Public Interest Award


“David Carliner was a tremendous advocate for human rights. He was ahead of his time and met incredible resistance for the work he did. We have all benefitted from his courageous work.” – Cathleen Caron, 2010 recipient of the Award

Image of David Carliner, seated

The David Carliner Public Interest Award was established in memory of one of the great public interest lawyers of the 20th Century, David Carliner (1918-2007), a champion of justice in his native Washington, D.C. and on the national stage. A tireless, innovative litigator, he also played a leading role in building institutions devoted to protecting civil and human rights and combating injustice on a systemic basis.

The award recognizes outstanding public interest lawyers whose work best exemplifies its namesake’s legacy. It is also meant to connect the winner’s work to the greater legal community and to provide financial support for both the winner and their organization.

“Winning the David Carliner award was a great honor and a wonderful way to make the necessary connections between criminal justice reform and other progressive movements,” says Peter Wagner, Executive Director of the Prison Policy Initiative and the 2014 Award winner. “For too long, progressive movements have all worked in isolation from each other, but ACS and this award have, like its namesake, highlighted our common struggle for justice and human rights.”

The Award consists of:

  • A cash prize of $10,000 plus transportation and lodging, in full, to one recipient, to the ACS National Convention in Washington, DC to accept the award in person.
  • An award of $2,500 to the recipient’s organization, or if the recipient is employed by a government entity, to an appropriate organization of the recipient’s choosing, subject to ACS’s approval.
  • An award of $2,500 to a finalist if the judges choose one.


The submission period for the 2020 Carliner Award is closed.

Criteria for the Carliner Award are below:

  • Have graduated from law school between May 2008 and May 2013;
  • Have demonstrated a passionate commitment to public interest law throughout their career and be employed at a nonprofit organization, government entity, or law firm whose mission supports and furthers the causes for which David Carliner stood.

Applicants will be evaluated on the extent to which their accomplishments exemplify David Carliner’s passionate commitment to one or more of the causes for which he worked: civil rights in a broad sense, civil liberties, international human rights and immigrants’ rights. Successful applicants will have pursued one or more of these causes with unwavering determination, creativity and effectiveness. Additionally, successful applicants will have demonstrated their intent to work in the public interest field throughout their careers

Applicants whose work has focused on policy advocacy or litigation will be looked on with equal favor.

In keeping with the legacy of David Carliner, whose career was devoted to achieving a just and inclusive society for all, women, people of color, people with disabilities and gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people are encouraged to apply.

Finalists may be announced at the discretion of the judges. Applicants will be informed of their status in the spring.


2020 Recipients: Amanda Alexander, Founder and Executive Director of the Detroit Justice Center, and Allison Riggs, Interim Executive Director and Chief Counsel for Voting Rights at the Southern Coalition for Social Justice


ACS is pleased to recognize Alexander and Riggs for their respective innovative work and commitment to protecting civil and human rights. The Detroit Justice Center (DJC) is a non-profit law firm working alongside communities to create economic opportunities, transform the justice system, and promote equitable and just cities. DJC prioritizes innovative community lawyering that builds up our poorest residents through direct services and novel approaches to land use, housing, and employment. Alexander has worked at the intersection of racial justice and community development for more than 15 years.

The Southern Coalition for Social Justice (SCSJ) is a Durham, North Carolina-based nonprofit that partners with communities of color and economically disadvantaged communities in the South to defend and advance their political, social, and economic rights through the combination of legal advocacy, research, organizing, and communications. The Coalition’s voting rights work protects the rights of communities of color by defending the Voting Rights Act through fair redistricting and minimizing election administration practices that threaten free democratic participation in elections. Riggs works closely with grassroots organizations and communities of color as they seek to advance their political and civil rights.

2019 Recipient: Amaha Kassa, Founder and Executive Director, African Communities Together

ACT is a leader in the important fight for Temporary Protected Status (TPS), a crucial humanitarian immigration program that has been targeted by the Trump administration. Under Kassa’s leadership, ACT recruited and organized Sudanese TPS holder plaintiffs from around the country to join Ramos v. Nielsen, the lawsuit challenging the administration’s improper termination of TPS. On the even of Sudan’s TPS ending, a court issued and injunction preventing the administration from ending the program. As a result of this critical victory, over 300,000 Sudanese, Haitian, Salvadoran, Nicaraguan immigrants have kept their legal status while they fight to become permanent residents. In addition to achieving immense legal success, Kassa has also led the effort to empower hundreds of black immigrants through organizing and leadership development, as immigrants directly affected by immigration and refugee policy are often absent from policy debates. ACS has trained hundreds of leaders and brought them to the hallways of Congress to speak on their own behalf.

2019 Finalist: Toby Merrill, Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School; more information can be found here.

2018 Recipients: Lauren Fine and Joanna Visser Adjoian, Co-Founders and Co-Directors of the Youth Sentencing & Reentry Project

Fine and Visser Adjoian founded the Youth Sentencing & Reentry Project in 2014 with the purpose of keeping children out of adult jails and prisons and bringing home people who were sentenced as children to life in prison without the possibility of parole. YSRP represents young people who face charges in the adult criminal justice system and in 92% of their cases, YSRP has prevented their clients from going to adult prison. Fine and Visser Adjoian have also led a successful campaign to end Philadelphia’s practice of charging parents for the cost of their children’s incarceration, created a multi-disciplinary pro bono project at the University of Pennsylvania (known as the Youth Advocacy Project) that has trained and supervised some 70 law and social work students to work in teams on behalf of youth charged as adults in Philadelphia, and created an infrastructure for providing mitigation and reentry planning for juvenile lifers in Philadelphia.

Before YSRP, Fine was a Zubrow Fellow in Children’s Law at Juvenile Law Center. Visser Adjoian previously served as Associate Director and Staff Attorney of the Toll Public Interest Center at the University of Pennsylvania Law School.

2018 Finalist: Thomas Smith, Executive Director and Lead Attorney, Justice at Work

2017 Recipient: Becca Heller, Director, The International Refugee Assistance Project

Since 2008, Becca Heller has gone from being a law student helping six families of Iraqi refugees she met during a summer break to being the leader of an organization providing free, comprehensive legal representation through every step of the registration, protection and resettlement process to refugees seeking safe resettlement. IRAP leverages a growing network of law students from 29 law school chapters and pro bono attorneys from over 75 international firms and corporations to work on the most urgent refugee cases, connecting places with excess legal resources to places with excess legal needs.

In late January, Heller and her team organized thousands of volunteer lawyers at airports around the country to defend the rights of incoming refugees and immigrants caught in the airport chaos created by President Trump’s travel ban. She led a coalition of lawyers and law students with the ACLU, National Immigration Law Center and Yale Law School to secure an emergency Temporary Restraining Order only 24 hours after the Executive Order, preventing the nationwide detention and deportation of any immigrants or refugees.

In 2018, Heller was awarded a Macarthur Genius Grant.

For more past recipients, click here.

Judges Panel

The 2020 Carliner Award recipients will be determined by the following panel of judges:

  • Nan Aron, Executive Director, Alliance for Justice
  • Deborah Carliner, Attorney; Past President, ACLU-NCA
  • William Fletcher, Judge, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit
  • Linda Greenhouse, Knight Distinguished Journalist in Residence and Joseph Goldstein Lecturer in Law, Yale Law School
  • Jacob Remes, Associate Professor, Gallatin School of Individualized Study, New York University
  • Vince Warren, Executive Director, Center for Constitutional Rights

Carliner in the News

David Carliner; Active in Unpopular Causes,” The Washington Post (Sept. 23, 2007)

David Carliner, Lawyer and Immigration Advocate Is Dead at 89,” The New York Times (Sept. 22, 2007)

Immigrant Advocate Freilich Wins Public Interest Award,” Daily Progress (June 21, 2009)

Seeking Lawyers Who Get the Dirt Out,” ACSblogguest post by Jacob Remes (January 17, 2012)