30 Years of IJ: Taking Stock as We Ramp Up for the Decades Ahead

September 21, 2021

The night before IJ first opened its doors in the fall of 1991, I made a pilgrimage to commune with “TJ” at the Jefferson Memorial, just across the National Mall from IJ’s first offices on Pennsylvania Avenue. I was a 24-year-old kid who had just graduated from law school and taken the bar exam. I was going to my dream job, the reason I went to law school in the first place—to practice constitutional law to protect the rights of individuals from abuses by government.

IJ at that time was just me, our two co-founders—Chip Mellor and Clint Bolick—and a couple of support staff. We had one case and one donor, and no one really knew who we were. We all knew that our chances for success were precarious and that we would have to build our reputation and track record one hard-fought case and project at a time.

Check out IJ’s first 30 years timeline!

For 25 years, I served as an IJ attorney in the litigation trenches. Then, in 2016, I had the privilege of becoming the organization’s second president. As I reflect on these past three decades, I can see how much the world has changed as a direct result of our work:

  • On September 3, 1991, precisely one educational choice program existed, and the legality of school choice was very much in doubt. Today, IJ has successfully defended 24 choice programs and won three U.S. Supreme Court victories for families.
  • Economic liberty had been a dead letter in the law for close to 60 years when IJ started, and occupational licensing was discussed only by a handful of free-market economists. We have now won multiple precedent-setting state and federal court cases protecting the right to earn a living. What’s more, people across the ideological spectrum recognize that occupational licensing creates enormous and largely unnecessary barriers to work for far too many Americans.
  • When we began litigating, free speech involving commercial and political matters was given scant protection by the courts. Today, the U.S. Supreme Court agrees with us that suppression of both these kinds of speech should be scrutinized just like suppression of other speech. Though the culture of free speech is under attack in several quarters, never in American history have free speech rights been better protected by the courts.
  • At IJ’s founding, property rights were treated as second-class rights, and eminent domain abuse and civil forfeiture were rampant throughout the country. Now eminent domain abuse is limited to a few holdout states. And although civil forfeiture remains a serious threat to property rights, IJ has curtailed it at both the state and federal levels.
  • In the past five years alone, we have grown our budget by 50%, our staff by 55%, and the number of cases we’re litigating by 95%. We’ve launched our new Project on Immunity and Accountability, helping rocket issues like qualified immunity to national attention and foster reform. This summer, we received—for the 20th consecutive year—Charity Navigator’s highest rating for our commitment to financial health, accountability, and transparency. And this fall, we will argue our 10th case at the U.S. Supreme Court.

From our humble origins, thanks to our more than 8,500 generous donors and our incredibly talented and productive staff, IJ is now a force that those in power must reckon with when they violate constitutional rights. As proud as I am of all that we have accomplished together, I am even more excited about the future and the profound and positive difference we can make to end widespread abuses of power and secure the rights that allow all Americans to pursue their dreams.

Scott Bullock is IJ’s president and general counsel.

Subscribe to get Liberty & Law magazine direct to your mailbox!

Sign up to receive IJ's bimonthly magazine, Liberty & Law, along with breaking news updates about the Institute for Justice's fight to protect the rights of all Americans.