Government in Retreat

January 29, 2009

fighting state bureaucrats for his right to earn an honest living before teaming up with IJ lawyers Clark Neily and Jeff Rowes in 2006. Fighting unaccountable bureaucrats, according to Charles, is like having schoolyard bullies take your lunch money every single day—and bringing IJ on board is like showing up to school with your big brother, who looks around and asks, “Okay, which ones are they?”

Charles was describing what happened in his own case, where the Institute for Justice is fighting a pitched battle in federal court, but his analogy always comes to mind whenever government officials, in the grand tradition of schoolyard bullies everywhere, turn tail and run as soon as IJ’s lawyers and media team come to town.

While our goal is always to prevail in court and secure a judicial precedent that will protect others in the future, the government folds its hand more often than one might expect. This past year was no exception. In Minnesota, the St. Paul Port Authority suspended its efforts to condemn the property of Advance Shoring, a decades-old St. Paul business, after the IJ Minnesota Chapter spearheaded a coalition of employees, their unions, management and owners to protest the abuse of eminent domain.

In Maryland, the state veterinary board responded to an Institute for Justice lawsuit by loudly proclaiming that it did not believe that the practice of animal massage was restricted to licensed veterinarians (even though the board had previously sent out a letter saying exactly the opposite). And in Nashville, the city’s Metropolitan Development and Housing Agency abandoned its condemnation of Joy Ford’s business once IJ’s legal and media team joined the case, allowing Joy to freely negotiate a land-swap with a local developer that allowed her to keep her business in place.

The unfortunate theme of these situations is that, all too often, there is a tremendous difference between the way government officials act when dealing with someone who is merely a citizen and the way government officials act when faced with the legal opposition and media glare that the Institute for Justice brings to bear.  Governments, in other words, are a lot less likely to abuse their power when faced with citizens who have power of their own.

Winning a case by scaring the government off is, of course, a less spectacular victory than winning a case in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. But it is no less important a victory for our clients.

IJ’s mission is to protect people’s most fundamental American birthrights—their right to earn a living, to speak freely, to protect their property or to direct the education of their children. Sometimes that means we need to win precedents in court after fighting through years of litigation. Sometimes, though, it just means we need to come to town and ask, as Charles Brown puts it, “Okay, which ones are they?”

Bob McNamara is an IJ staff attorney.

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