The idea of the NEJL was first introduced in 1988 by Justice Earl Johnson, Jr., a judge on the California Court of Appeal, at a meeting of the Board of the National Legal Aid & Defender Association (NLADA), of which he was a member.
The importance of such a repository was driven home when it was discovered that the papers of Clara Shortridge Foltz, credited with founding the public defender system in the United States, and the first woman lawyer in the western states, were destroyed by her family who did not realize the papers’ historic significance.
Four major organizations joined together to form a Joint Exploratory Committee to develop the project. The four organizations were the American Bar Association (ABA), the National Legal Aid and Defender Association (NLADA), the Association of American Law Schools (AALS), and the American Association of Law Libraries (AALL), This led to the formation of a non-profit corporation, the Consortium for the National Equal Justice Library, Inc. (CNEJL). CNEJL met for the first time on October 21, 1989.
In 1991, the Consortium chose the library at the Washington College of Law at American University to house the new collection and held its grand opening in September 1997.
Nine years later, the NEJL was acquired by the Georgetown University Law Library where it continues to be an invaluable resource to lawyers, law students and other researchers interested in the rich history of legal aid to the poor.
In 2018, the Consortium launched its own website (cnejl.org) that supplements the Georgetown Library website.