American Bar Foundation



Tax ID:


Tax-Exempt Status:


Budget (2018):

Revenue: $8,850,670
Expenses: $7,569,846
Assets: $27,511,560




E. Thomas Sullivan

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The American Bar Foundation (ABF) is a charitable organization associated with the left-of-center American Bar Association (ABA). Founded in 1952, the ABF employs researchers to conduct studies related to legal institutions and the legal profession. 1

Though the ABF purports to conduct research to advance the legal profession, the Foundation has advanced several left-of-center ideological positions through its research, including claiming that supporters of former President Donald Trump are more likely to have criminal histories. 2

Research Activity

The American Bar Foundation conducts studies related to the legal profession, many of which focus on alleged discrimination and bias within the justice system. The ABF employs research faculty members who take on research projects related to law in fields ranging from political science to sociology. 3

Bias and Discrimination Research

Many ABF studies focus on alleged discrimination within the legal profession. In 2020, the ABF published a report which found that African-American and Hispanic law students make up a higher proportion of the student body at lower-ranked law schools, claiming that higher-ranked law schools did not mee the interests of African American and Hispanic students. 4 Another 2015 ABF study also focused on supposed discrimination, alleging that female litigators were underrepresented as lead trial lawyers. 5

In 2012, the ABF published a study claiming that white lawyers were biased against African American clients, damaging their legal outcomes. The ABF claimed that lawyers who participated in the study evaluated the “demeanor and mannerisms” of potential clients before deciding whether to take a case, which the study claimed revealed racial biases in white lawyers as they determined whether to advise a client to file for Chapter 13 bankruptcy. 6

ABF researchers have also supported the theory that there is a legal services “gap” in the United States, claiming that Americans do not seek legal help in civil situations because they perceive it as being too expensive or do not know when legal counsel is appropriate. The ABF has used such research to advocate for expanded legal aid programs within the United States. 7

Support for Left-of-Center Policy

While some ABF studies appear focused on the legal profession, others advocate for left-of-center political positions. In October 2020, two ABF researchers published a study which claimed that those who supported former President Trump and other “America First” beliefs were more likely to be former criminals. The researchers called right-of-center views on issues like immigration and trade policy “exclusionary” and claimed that they expressed “hostility about perceived outsiders,” which led them to claim that the views were “connected with crime and violence.” 8

In November 2020, ABF researcher Amber Joy Powell published a report on policing in Minneapolis. When making recommendations based on the study’s findings, Powell and her co-authors alleged that policing was associated with “other systemic injustices and decades-long racial trauma.” Despite nearly all the study’s interviewees reporting that they wanted safer neighborhoods, the authors recommended decreased police presence in high-crime communities, instead advocating for the government to increase public health programs and reclaim blighted land. 9

Aside from its primary research work, the ABF also hosts events to discuss current politics. In 2020, the ABF hosted a virtual event on policing which claimed that “aggressive” police tactics impact voter turnout and political protests, working with the left-of-center Chicago Community Trust (CCT) in hosting the event. 10 That same year, ABF fellows chair Angela P. Harris wrote an article for the UCLA Law Review which claimed that the forced “subordination” of minority groups created “unjust health disparities.” 11


Thomas Sullivan is the current president of the American Bar Foundation. 12 Sullivan previously worked as the president of the University of Vermont, where he continues to teach as a professor of political science. 13

Several prominent left-of-center officials have been associated with the ABF. Late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg sat on the ABF board of directors in the 1980s, and after winning the Berggruen Prize for Philosophy & Culture in October 2019, Justice Ginsburg donated some of the $1 million in prize money to the ABF. 14 In 2018, ABF fellow Rebecca Sandefur won a $625,000 grant from the left-of-center MacArthur Foundation to continue her work on the alleged legal services gap. 15

In April 2021, after months of discussions by Democrats on whether to increase the size of the U.S. Supreme Court to gain a left-leaning majority on the bench (a practice known as “packing the court”), President Joe Biden created the Presidential Commission on the Supreme Court of the United States to evaluate changes to the size, composition, and rules of the Supreme Court. President Biden named ABF fellow Elise Boddie to the Commission. 16


While the ABF does not publicly declare its donors, the American Bar Foundation has admitted to being primarily supported by the American Bar Endowment (ABE), a charitable organization that provides insurance programs to ABA members and then donates their dividends to other law-related nonprofit organizations. 17 In 2019, the ABF also reported receiving nearly $2.1 million in membership dues from Fellows of the ABF, a group of annual donors. 18

In late 2019, the ABF announced that it had received a multi-year grant from the left-of-center JPB Foundation to fund research on online legal tools, automation in the legal industry, and the impact of immigration lawyers on preventing the removal of illegal immigrants from the United States. 19 In 2019 and 2020, the ABF also reported receiving grants from a number of left-of-center organizations, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the California Community Foundation, and the Chicago Community Trust. 20


  1. “History and Culture.” American Bar Foundation. Accessed May 3, 2021.
  2. Kulke, Stephanie. “Research Shows Link between Criminal Arrests and ‘America First’ Ideology.” Northwestern Now. Northwestern University, October 14, 2020.
  3. “About.” American Bar Foundation. Accessed May 3, 2021.
  4. Kuris, Gabriel. “What Underrepresented Law School Applicants Should Know.” U.S. News & World Report. Accessed May 3, 2021.
  5. Blumenthal, Jeff. “Study: Women Underrepresented as Lead Trial Lawyers.” Philadelphia Business Journal. American City Business Journals, July 14, 2015.
  6. Weiss, Debra Cassens. “White Lawyers May Have Biases That Hurt Their Black Clients, Says Op-Ed Calling for More Diversity.” ABA Journal. American Bar Association, December 14, 2015.
  7. Podgers, James. “Part of Access to Justice Gap Is That Americans Don’t Know When to Seek Legal Help, Says Study.” ABA Journal. American Bar Association, August 8, 2014.
  8. Kulke, Stephanie. “Research Shows Link between Criminal Arrests and ‘America First’ Ideology.” Northwestern Now. Northwestern University, October 14, 2020.
  9. Phelps, Michelle S., Amber Joy Powell, and Christopher E. Robertson. “Over-Policed and Under-Protected: Public Safety in North Minneapolis.” CURA. Center for Urban and Regional Affairs at the University of Minnesota, November 17, 2020.
  10. “Annual Report 2020.” American Bar Foundation. Accessed May 3, 2021.
  11. “Annual Report 2020.” American Bar Foundation. Accessed May 3, 2021.
  12. “About.” American Bar Foundation. Accessed May 3, 2021.
  13. “E. Thomas Sullivan.” The University of Vermont. Accessed May 3, 2021.
  14. Ward, Stephanie Francis. “Friends Remember Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Her Longtime Association with the ABA.” ABA Journal. The American Bar Association, December 1, 2020.
  15. Laird, Lorelei. “Access-to-Justice Work Earns MacArthur ‘Genius Grant’ for American Bar Foundation Faculty Fellow.” ABA Journal. The American Bar Association, October 5, 2018.
  16. “President Biden to Sign Executive Order Creating the Presidential Commission on the Supreme Court of the United States.” The White House. The United States Government, April 10, 2021.
  17. “American Bar Endowment Names New Executive Director.” Detroit Legal News, June 14, 2016.
  18. “ABF 2020 Annual Report.” American Bar Foundation. Accessed May 3, 2021.
  19. “Annual Report 2020.” American Bar Foundation. Accessed May 3, 2021.
  20. “ABF 2020 Annual Report.” American Bar Foundation. Accessed May 3, 2021.
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Nonprofit Information

  • Accounting Period: August - July
  • Tax Exemption Received: February 1, 1956

  • Available Filings

    Period Form Type Total revenue Total functional expenses Total assets (EOY) Total liabilities (EOY) Unrelated business income? Total contributions Program service revenue Investment income Comp. of current officers, directors, etc. Form 990
    2018 Aug Form 990 $8,850,670 $7,569,846 $27,511,560 $2,494,329 Y $6,570,154 $179,655 $707,213 $258,041 PDF
    2017 Aug Form 990 $8,234,738 $6,799,313 $26,010,747 $2,278,747 N $6,138,089 $31,270 $670,625 $259,753 PDF
    2016 Aug Form 990 $6,712,127 $6,620,334 $24,278,898 $2,596,289 N $5,923,950 $50,802 $701,767 $347,595
    2015 Aug Form 990 $6,502,338 $6,232,383 $22,992,973 $2,025,219 N $5,029,447 $32,728 $676,100 $331,986 PDF
    2014 Aug Form 990 $6,844,180 $6,376,443 $24,847,398 $1,858,095 N $5,439,358 $51,190 $645,310 $330,931 PDF
    2013 Aug Form 990 $7,713,883 $6,731,349 $22,756,615 $2,191,049 N $6,363,398 $34,943 $613,297 $322,060 PDF
    2012 Aug Form 990 $12,821,353 $7,019,622 $20,959,433 $2,205,709 N $5,666,059 $34,385 $541,776 $317,357 PDF
    2011 Aug Form 990 $6,357,409 $6,084,527 $20,348,828 $1,720,882 N $5,424,613 $53,914 $521,713 $307,563 PDF

    Additional Filings (PDFs)

    American Bar Foundation

    CHICAGO, IL 60611-3152