Strategic Research Paying Dividends

February 1, 2011

The Institute for Justice’s strategic research program is something truly new in the world of public interest law. No other organization has the capability to produce academic-caliber research and then employ that research in cutting-edge litigation to advance freedom.

In IJ’s constitutional challenge to Texas’ civil forfeiture scheme, for example, our research underscored a key legal claim—and put the state on the defensive. In Forfeiting Justice, released in November, Director of Strategic Research Dick Carpenter used data provided by Texas law enforcement agencies themselves to show that, on average, forfeiture funds represented 14 percent of agency budgets in 2007. For the 10 agencies that took in the most forfeiture money, proceeds equaled a whopping 37 percent of budgets.

IJ argues that Texas’ scheme provides police and prosecutors improper incentives to pursue forfeitures that generate funds for the agencies, distracting them from other law enforcement goals and putting the property of innocent citizens at risk. The data show that these incentives are real and sizable. Perhaps that is why the state fought to prevent IJ from accessing more recent and detailed data, but also challenged in court the presentation of the data we do have.

Strategic research likewise demonstrated the real-world harms of Arizona’s so-called “Clean Elections” system, now before the U.S. Supreme Court. In expert testimony, David Primo, a political scientist at the University of Rochester, showed that privately supported candidates delay spending on or raising money for their speech to avoid triggering “matching funds” to publicly funded opponents.

In other words, these candidates hold their fire so their speech is not “matched” with additional subsidies to their opponents. The Government Accountability Office cited Dr. Primo’s findings in a recent report on taxpayer funding plans like Arizona’s and found evidence that independent groups behave similarly. This proof of harm to the unfettered exercise of First Amendment rights was a key part of IJ’s successful petition asking the Court to take the case, as well as our merits brief arguing matching funds should be struck down.

Strategic research also played a role in IJ’s defense of Arizona’s school choice program before the High Court. Opponents, drawing on anecdotal reports from local newspapers, attempted to paint the individual tax credit program as rigged to favor wealthy families. We asked education analyst Vicki Murray to evaluate that claim, and she found that scholarship recipients’ median income is actually $5,000 less than the statewide median. That provided powerful evidence to the Court that Arizona’s program does in fact open the doors of educational opportunity to low- and middle-income families.

In these and other cases, strategic research is giving IJ litigators an additional tool to make the case for freedom in court. And increasingly, our work is also having an impact on scholarly and policy debates. We have had 10 articles published in or accepted for publication by peer-reviewed journals, and at least 36 other articles have cited our work in scholarly, law review and policy publications—testaments to both the quality of the research and its relevance to vital issues of the day.

Starting this first-of-its-kind program required the kind of entrepreneurial spirit and long-term vision that are the hallmarks of IJ’s success. A little less than five years into this venture, it is clearer than ever that it is paying dividends.

Lisa Knepper is IJ’s director of strategic research.

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