In Court with Strategic Research

August 11, 2009

Institute for Justice cases, by design, address issues of broad public importance, from whether government can squash competition in an industry to whether citizens still enjoy the unfettered right to free speech, especially when it comes to politics.

Naturally, such cases raise questions about the real-world, systemic effects of the laws we challenge. Surprisingly, there is often little existing social science or policy research that addresses these effects.

Enter IJ’s strategic research program.

In just three years, this groundbreaking effort has begun to fill the gaps in scholarship about the issues we litigate with rigorous original research. Better still, several of our reports have proved integral to putting forward the strongest case possible in the courtroom, with expert testimony submitted as part of the official record in four cases and counting. (To see results of our strategic research so far, visit

Most recently, research demonstrated how Arizona’s so-called “Clean Elections” system of taxpayer-funding for political campaigns violates the First Amendment.

IJ argues that Arizona’s system unconstitutionally discourages speech by candidates who refuse government handouts because whenever they raise funds for their speech beyond a set amount, the government delivers “matching funds,” or additional government checks, to publicly funded opponents.

Strategic research demonstrated that this is not merely our assertion or the experience of only our clients. In the most rigorous investigation to date, political scientist David Primo of the University of Rochester analyzed six years of Clean Elections data and found that privately funded candidates hold off spending until the final weeks of a campaign, and even after an election, to avoid triggering matching funds to government-funded opponents.

In IJ’s federal challenge to Colorado’s campaign finance laws, expert testimony based on strategic research debunked the common assumption that disclosure regulations are a harmless way to provide valuable information to voters.

Economist and campaign-finance expert Jeffrey Milyo of the University of Missouri submitted testimony demonstrating that disclosure regulations are not harmless. They drown ordinary citizens like our clients in Parker North, Colo., in red tape simply for speaking out about a ballot issue. And IJ’s Director of Strategic Research Dick Carpenter found that the information produced by disclosure likely has little value to voters. Few media outlets report it, and voters rarely seek it out.

Milyo also offered expert testimony in IJ’s case. Analyzing federal election data and studying independent political groups, he concluded that the contribution limits imposed on’s potential members reduce the amount and effectiveness of political speech and are particularly harmful for new groups and political outsiders.

Finally, in IJ’s successful challenge to Texas’ interior design law, Dick Carpenter demonstrated through a carefully designed survey that consumers think interior designers are people who do interior design work, not people who have the credentials Texas required just to use the name “interior designer.” Remarkably, the state had disputed this common-sense finding, claiming that our clients and others without those arbitrary credentials were “misleading” the public by accurately describing their work.

Dick’s research not only put the lie to Texas’ ridiculous claim, but his expertise in research methods also helped impeach a faulty expert report the state submitted in defense of the law.

Critics, of course, charge that IJ’s work is just “advocacy research,” designed to reach a predetermined conclusion. We welcome scrutiny and ask only that critics debate our findings on their merits. This very skepticism—and, even more, the adversarial process of litigation—demands the highest possible quality of IJ research. Dick’s exacting standards for accuracy and sound methods ensure that we meet and exceed those demands every time.

In the courtroom, this high-quality work has substantiated legal claims, deflated flawed evidence from our adversaries and discredited assumptions underlying bad laws. That is research with real results.

Lisa Knepper is IJ’s director of communications.

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