December 11, 2009

Addressing the Most Important Weakness of Conservative-Libertarian Public Interest Law

Thoughts on the Federalist Society's Pro Bono Center via Ilya Somin.
Over the last 30 years, conservative and libertarian public interest firms such as the Institute for Justice, the Center for Individual Rights, and the Pacific Legal Foundation have mounted a strong challenge to the previously dominant legal left, and won some important legal victories for property rights, economic liberties, and limits on government power. However, right of center public interest law suffers from a key weakness: the paucity of lawyers available to conduct follow-up litigation to enforce favorable precedents. Even the most important federal and state supreme court decisions don’t change the legal landscape all by themselves; they usually require extensive follow-up litigation to make sure that government officials comply and that their principles are enforced in other cases where similar issues come up. Often, the people victimized by government violations of constitutional rights are poor, politically weak, or unable to engage in protracted litigation to vindicate their rights. This is true in the area of property rights, and many others of interest to libertarians and conservatives. Left-liberal scholars and activists have long understood this crucial lesson, and they have created an extensive network to facilitate follow-up litigation to enforce their high court legal victories. In almost every major law firm, there are lawyers who do small-bore pro bono cases on behalf of various left-wing causes. These cases often build on and enforce favorable appellate decisions.

By contrast, conservatives and libertarians have been slow to grasp this point and act on it. That isn’t just my opinion. It’s also the view of Steven Teles, author of the leading academic work on right of center public interest law, and also of prominent leaders of conservative and libertarian public interest organizations, such as Chip Mellor, President of the Institute for Justice and the leaders of CIR (interviewed in Teles’ book).

The Fed Soc Pro Bono Center is a thoughtful effort to address the problem. The premise is simple: interested lawyers sign up at the Center’s website, and give their contact information, areas of expertise (e.g. — property rights, First Amendment, religious liberties, criminal law), what kind of work they can do (trial, appellate, etc.), and how much time they have per month. The Center then matches them up with public interest firms and other organizations that are looking for lawyers to work on specific cases (these organizations can also sign up at the website, and provide information about their needs). I doubt that the Pro Bono Center can cure the greatest weakness of conservative/libertarian public interest law all by itself. But it’s a step in the right direction. IJ’s Human Action Network is an older, somewhat similar initiative (but one that doesn’t have an explicit case-matching system).