Litigating for Liberty, Swedish-Style

February 1, 2008

By Gunnar Strömmer

The Centrum för Rättvisa’s eminent domain clients in Burlov, Sweden. Local authorities want to take the couple’s home and give it to DHL, the giant German transport company.

In 2001, I had an incredible nine-month internship at the Institute for Justice in Washington, D.C., an experience that has paid off in big ways in my native country of Sweden. At the time, I was a young Swedish lawyer and the goal of my internship was to study “the IJ Way” in order to start a similar non-profit, pro-liberty litigation shop in Sweden.

To be sure, there are fundamental differences between Sweden and the U.S. in terms of their respective legal systems and traditions. Historically, constitutional protection for individual liberties in the Swedish welfare state has been weak. Swedish judges have been very skeptical of judicial review. And different government agencies designed to protect individual rights have in practice promoted group rights and entitlements instead.

However, in 1995, Sweden joined the European Union, and the European Convention on Human Rights became Swedish law. All of a sudden, there was a substantial ability to protect individual liberties, and the national courts were expected to play a more assertive and independent role. In this context, there was new potential for a successful Swedish public interest litigation program. From its inception in 2002, the Centrum för Rättvisa (Center for Justice) has been able to apply many of the lessons I learned during my time at IJ: the importance of principles rather than politics; the value of a strategic litigation plan; and the need to argue your cases in the court of public opinion as well as in the courts of law.

After five years in business, the Centrum för Rättvisa has litigated about 40 cases, concentrating primarily on property rights, economic liberty, equal protection and freedom of association. And, luckily, we have been successful in promoting our issues, both in the courts and in the public debate.

Our most prominent legal victory came in January 2006, when the Swedish Supreme Court unanimously voided an ethnic quota admission system at the Uppsala University Law School, ruling that it violated the Swedish Equal Treatment Act. The law school had earmarked 30 out of 300 first-year law student places for applicants “both of whose parents were born abroad.” The Centrum för Rättvisa filed a lawsuit on behalf of two applicants who did not have two parents born abroad, and who failed to gain admission in spite of having better high school grades than all 30 of the applicants accepted through the special quota.

Looking back on a solid track record is, of course, satisfying. But in November 2007, when the Centrum celebrated its five-year anniversary, we sought to build on our successes by expanding our program even further. Therefore, we were very happy to have my old friend from IJ, Scott Bullock, as a keynote speaker at our anniversary celebration in Stockholm in order to launch our next litigation program—Public Power, Private Gain. As in the United States, property in Sweden is being taken not just for public uses, but also for private businesses in the name of economic development. Inspired by IJ’s incredibly successful work on this issue, the Centrum för Rättvisa decided to do something about it. Our first lawsuits have already been filed and we will make the issue a top priority.

Finally, like IJ, the Centrum för Rättvisa has been blessed with the most important thing for a successful public interest law group: clients with amazing character and important things to say.

I am sure that we will have many inspiring experiences to share overseas in the next five years and beyond.

Gunnar Strömmer is the founder of the Centrum för Rättvisa, Sweden’s first public interest law firm.

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