Our History – Standing with the poor and oppressed

On November 13, 1974, Karen Silkwood was on her way to meet a New York Times reporter when her car was run off the road. Silkwood was a safety inspector and activist with the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers Union. She had told the reporter she had evidence of safety violations at the plutonium fuel rods plant where she worked near Crescent, Oklahoma.

Soon afterward, nationwide demands were made for an investigation into her death. A lawsuit was filed on behalf of her children, and a broad coalition of organizations undertook a public education and organizing campaign to publicize the lawsuit. When the jury in Silkwood v. Kerr McGee returned from their deliberations, they awarded a record-setting $10.5 million judgement to Silkwood’s estate. The case established new precedent in liability law, effectively ending construction of all new nuclear power plants in the United States.

The architects of the case were unlikely allies. They included leaders from the National Organization for Women (NOW), the Jesuit Office of Social Ministries, the Environmental Policy Institute, the Quixote Center, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Fund for Constitutional Government, the Oil Chemical and Atomic Workers Union, and the Anti-Nuclear Movement. After the verdict, several of these allies regrouped in Washington, D.C. and founded the Christic Institute.

Over the next 17 years, the Christic Institute prosecuted some of the most celebrated public interest cases of our time. By combining investigation, litigation, education and organizing, they created a unique model for social reform in the United States. The Institute represented victims of the nuclear disaster at Three Mile Island; prosecuted KKK members for killing civil rights demonstrators in Greensboro, North Carolina; defended Catholic workers who provided sanctuary to political refugees fleeing El Salvador’s death squads; and, in 1986, filed federal racketeering charges against 26 individuals who perpetrated the Iran-Contra Affair.

Today, Daniel Sheehan and Sara Nelson, two of the co-founders of the Christic Institute, carry on their previous work through the Romero Institute. Based in Santa Cruz, California, the Institute engages nationwide in legal consulting, litigation, and public education. To learn more about the Romero Institute’s current projects, please visit the projects page.