State Chapter Lessons Prove Universal

February 1, 2008

State Chapter Lessons Prove Universal

By Deborah Simpson

The Institute for Justice Arizona Chapter kept teenage entrepreneur Christian Alf in business when the government sought to shut him down.

As the Institute for Justice gears up to launch its newest state chapter (keep an eye out for the next issue of Liberty & Law for all the details), we reflect on the lessons learned over the first six years of the state chapters project. With three chapters operating in very distinct geographic and political climates, there have been many opportunities to experiment with the IJ Way to adapt it to fit each location, each specific chapter mission and each specific case of government over-regulation we decide to challenge. Approaches that are successful in one state may not work in another. A certain litigation model may work for one type of case but not another. Yet certain ways of doing business are universal.

Our chapters have taught us that we benefit from experimentation. Experimentation, or as we like to call it, taking an entrepreneurial approach to every project, has become a hallmark of IJ’s work. We take a fresh look at each set of facts and determine what is the best strategic approach to ensure the desired outcome for liberty. Sometimes we can accomplish the goal with a letter, sometimes it takes a lawsuit, and sometimes it takes every weapon we have available, but the lesson is to try different approaches and never get stuck using merely one approach. One example of this is the Arizona Chapter’s (IJ-AZ) three challenges to the Structural Pest Control Commission (SPCC) and its overreaching regulations. In each case we used a different approach and increased the heat on the agency until in October 2007, a legislative panel voted to eliminate the Pest Control Commission entirely.

IJ first encountered the Commission in March 2004 when we wrote a letter defending Christian Alf, an entrepreneurial teenager who was installing wire mesh on roof openings to keep rats out of homes. At the behest of exterminators who felt they were losing business to this young entrepreneur, the SPCC tried to shut him down for operating a pest control business without a license. Within weeks of receiving our letter and being rightfully featured as a villain in media across the state, the Commission backed down and changed its interpretation of the law to exclude Christian’s activities.

The Institute for Justice Arizona chapter filed a lawsuit to fight regulations that serve only to deprive hard-working individuals, like Gary Rissmiller, of a legitimate business opportunity.

In October of the next year, the SPCC overreached again by regulating landscapers who sprayed over-the-counter weed killer (like Roundup) as an incidental part of their work. This time a letter was not enough; it took a different approach—a lawsuit and legislative reform. Ultimately, reform was passed in May 2006 that now allows gardeners to spritz weeds without having to obtain a pest control license.

Our most recent and hopefully last challenge to the SPCC occurred in April 2007, when we skipped the letter approach and immediately threatened litigation to protect Rich Hanley, who was operating a business similar to Christian Alf’s. This approach succeeded as well when the Commission reversed its decision in June 2007 and lifted the cease-and-desist order against Mr. Hanley.

The lesson here is not only that each challenge should be met with a fresh approach, mindful of past experiences, but also that incremental sustained pressure can accomplish much more than any single lawsuit. In just a bit over three years, with only a modest expenditure of resources, IJ not only vindicated the rights of the individuals we represented, but we just may have succeeded in eliminating an entire state agency, freeing many more folks from unnecessary government regulation. Arizona’s legislative “Sunset Committee” recommended to sunset the SPCC, and, if the legislature does nothing this year, the Commission will automatically sunset out of existence.

Having an entrepreneurial approach is very effective, but it is made possible because we have a strong foundation upon which to experiment. That is the second lesson we learned—stay true to our founding principles. Under-girding everything IJ does are the founding principles that have served us so well for so long—adherence to our mission in each of our four pillars, entrepreneurial vision and drive, and top-notch legal work coupled with strategic media relations, outreach and research. Without this foundation, we would not feel as confident taking risks. Without it as our rudder, it would be easy for IJ to go adrift. The best way we have found to stay true to our mission is through careful and thoughtful case selection. And one of the most effective ways to achieve success in those cases is to forge strong relationships with local organizations and other allies in the pro-freedom movement as well as those in the historical civil rights movement.

IJ has developed strong relationships with state-based think tanks and other like-minded organizations in states where we have chapters and elsewhere to great effect. Combining efforts leverages the work of both organizations and produces greater impact than our efforts could produce independently. This is especially true given the complementary nature of policy work and litigation. Perhaps the best result from these alliances came through the post-Kelo eminent domain reform efforts where the Institute for Justice worked closely with policy groups that had established relationships with legislators in Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Minnesota, South Carolina, Washington and other states to help pass important reform. The one-two punch of well-reasoned and well-executed policy advocacy together with the ever-present threat of IJ litigation proved successful in state after state in the effort to expand freedom.

These are a few of the important lessons we learned over the years that we take with us as we continue to bring our brand of strategic litigation to the states. We believe we have a road-tested model for successful state-based litigation that we, and we hope others, will embark upon for years to come.

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