2001: A Freedom Odyssey
By Chip Mellor and Clint Bolick
It just doesn’t seem possible that nearly ten years have passed since the day we first opened the doors of the Institute for Justice. One reason is that it has been enormously fun and fulfilling, and good times always go fast. Another is that we hit the ground running from the first day even more than we expected, and we really haven’t stopped ever since.
Editor’s Note: As IJ approaches its 10th anniversary, each issue this year will present a retrospective by members of the IJ family who have been with us since the beginning in 1991. This issue features IJ’s co-founders, Chip Mellor and Clint Bolick.
We opened in September 1991 with a staff of five, including three lawyers: the two of us, plus Scott Bullock, fresh out of law school. We promptly announced our presence with our first lawsuit, Uqdah v. D.C. Board of Cosmetology, which would set the tone and standard for IJ’s unique approach to public interest law.
From the outset, many thought the odds were against us, but we survived—and thrived—through an unyielding adherence to the highest standards of honesty, integrity and principle. IJ earned a reputation as a potent national law center respected by all sides of the ideological divide. That reputation is our crown jewel, and we cherish it.
Much has surprised us, but nothing came by accident. We began contemplating what would eventually be the Institute for Justice as far back as 1984, when we were working together at a conservative public interest law firm in Denver. We envisioned a public interest law firm that would strengthen the pillars of the rule of law essential for an enduring free society. Like more-successful liberal groups, it would pursue a systematic, long-term litigation strategy, with sympathetic cases and clients and a strategy to build support in the court of public opinion. It would expand the constituency for freedom by developing nontraditional alliances. It would amplify the impact of its own work by training others to effectively litigate for liberty. And it would earn the loyalty of financial supporters by staying true to our charted course and core principles.
Our personal paths took circuitous courses. Both of us worked in the Reagan Administration, Chip at the Department of Energy and Clint at the Justice Department and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Then Chip headed to San Francisco to head Pacific Research Institute (PRI), enlisting leading legal scholars to help us develop litigation blueprints in the areas of civil rights, property rights and the First Amendment. Meanwhile, Clint stayed in Washington to develop a litigation program at the Landmark Center for Civil Rights. Throughout this time, we never lost sight of our goal of joining forces.
Chip Mellor (left) with Dave Kennedy, IJ’s first and only chairman of the board since its founding ten years ago.
In 1991, the time came to take our dreams off the drawing board and into the courtroom. The Charles Koch Foundation provided the seed funding to make IJ a reality. We assembled a dedicated and knowledgeable Board of Directors that remains one of the unheralded keys to IJ’s success. Two of the original members—Board Chairman David Kennedy and Gerrit Wormhoudt—are still with IJ today.
From the beginning, we vowed that IJ would not be our alter ego—it would not be “The Chip and Clint Show”—but instead IJ would develop its own institutional identity and enduring strength. Over the years we have built one of the most impressive teams in the entire world of public policy—not only remarkably talented attorneys who forego big salaries to work for their ideals, but also movement all-stars in the areas of communications, development and outreach. We work as a close-knit team, recognizing that successful litigation against entrenched precedent and well-heeled adversaries requires focus, tenacity and resilience. Together, the IJ team regularly accomplishes the impossible, and it does so with gusto.
One example is especially illuminating. For 50 years, courts routinely upheld economic regulations, no matter how oppressive or restrictive of the freedom to earn an honest living, under the “rational basis” standard—the weakest standard of judicial review. Such cases were considered hopeless. But now there are four federal court precedents striking down laws restricting economic liberty. We are building a jurisprudence of economic liberty, step by painstaking step. Meanwhile, two cases that we lost in court—African hairstyling in the District of Columbia and taxicabs in Denver—were turned into victories through the court of public opinion.
Two years ago, we began a new era in IJ’s history by opening our first program outside of Washington: the IJ Clinic on Entrepreneurship at the University of Chicago Law School. Headed by Patricia Lee and inspired by two alumni of our training programs, the IJ Clinic is applying the “IJ Way” to help aspiring inner-city entrepreneurs successfully navigate the regulatory terrain. Already it is receiving national acclaim as a uniquely effective program.
People often ask IJ attorneys why they would forego better salaries at private sector law firms. The answer is easy. There is no compensation in the world that could equal the joy, excitement and fulfillment of seeing a fleet of cars in Denver bearing the “Freedom Cabs” insignia despite the best efforts of regulators to kill it, or witnessing the exuberance of Milwaukee schoolchildren attending high-quality private schools despite the efforts of powerful unions to keep them in failing public schools, or seeing a home still standing in the shadow of a Trump casino despite the determination of government to seize it. Helping people gain or protect their freedom—there is nothing in the world more rewarding than that.
People often ask IJ attorneys why they would forego better salaries at private sector law firms. The answer is easy. Helping people gain or protect their freedom—there is nothing in the world more rewarding than that.
You can imagine how grateful our colleagues and we are to be able to do that for a living. And we are always mindful that we can do it only with the support of our contributors. We have built a loyal and diverse funding base of nearly 8,000 donors. We try always to provide a tremendous return on their investment.
IJ’s accomplishments and this 10th year anniversary make us even more excited about the future.
We have always enjoyed the advantage of being a lean, entrepreneurial organization. That will never change. But to seize new opportunities and carry the fight for freedom to new arenas, we are investigating possible new entrepreneurship clinics as well as state and regional chapters that will allow us to tap into both freedom-oriented provisions in state constitutions as well as volunteer assistance from the hundreds of alumni from our training programs. It will be exciting!
Through it all, it has been a great delight for the two of us to realize that long-ago dream. We work effectively as partners and we enjoy it enormously. We look forward to celebrating with you our 10th anniversary in the enterprise of freedom—and continuing to work together to build on our success as we change the world!
Chip Mellor is president and general counsel of the Institute for Justice and Clint Bolick is the Institute’s vice president and director of litigation.