Politics & Policy

Southeastern Spirit

Legal foundation supports and defends what so may others won't.

It used to be that public servants at least paid lip service to the oaths they took to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States.” But last year, when Congress passed and President Bush signed a campaign-finance-reform bill, many — including Bush — admitted that they knew elements of the law were unconstitutional.

The fact is, neither national party can be counted on to defend the Constitution and its call for limited government.

That’s where the Southeastern Legal Foundation comes in. “Congress knowingly abdicated its duty to defend the Constitution. It’s laziness and dereliction of duty to expect ‘the courts’ to clean it up,” says Phil Kent, president of SLF.

The Southeastern Legal Foundation is an Atlanta-based public-interest law firm founded in 1976. Its mission, explains Kent, is “to advocate limited government, individual economic freedom, and the free-enterprise system.”

For over four decades, SLF has stayed true to this mission. Unlike many other public-interest law firms, which tend to focus on a single issue, SLF has tackled cases in myriad areas of constitutional law, from affirmative action and eminent domain to taxes, the environment, and illegal immigration.

Just last spring, they won a case in Charlotte, North Carolina, which led to the abolition of an unconstitutional quota program. When SLF got wind of the program’s existence, says Phil Kent, “we marched into Charlotte, told them they had an illegal race and gender-quota program, published a paper to show them how to have a legal affirmative-action program, and won the case with a local attorney.”

SLF has been an energetic advocate of tax cuts, as well. A foundation plan led to the largest tax cut in Georgia’s history: In 1999, then-governor Roy Barnes signed into law a bill calling for a $1 billion, four-year moratorium in the state’s unemployment-insurance tax. The Wall Street Journal credited SLF with $105 million in tax cuts in 1996 alone.

And, they weren’t quiet during the Clinton scandals. After President Clinton was found to have committed perjury, SLF filed the first ethics complaint against him, an effort that culminated in Clinton losing his law license, the first such event in the life of a sitting president. In fact, they’re still fighting to protect Americans from their former president: Right now, SLF is initiating a campaign to bar the Clintons from receiving taxpayer money to pay off the legal bills incurred while they were in office.

On a different, but still Clinton-related note, SLF won an important Supreme Court victory in 1999 when they challenged an unconstitutional Clinton-administration statistical-sampling Census policy.

Their biggest case yet is under way. SLF is the chief funder and co-counsel of the legal challenge to the infamous campaign-finance law signed into law last year. Kenneth Starr is arguing their case in the suit, McConnell et. al. v. FCC, FEC. They’re currently waiting on a three-judge panel in D.C. to render a decision; once that happens, it’s on to the Supreme Court — and, hopefully, victory for the First Amendment.

SLF’s two in-house attorneys and their colleagues are always busy, whether in representing the “little guy,” filing amicus briefs, circulating petitions (their most recent petition is in support of Augusta National Golf Club’s Hootie Johnson), or writing books (Phil Kent’s The Dark Side of Liberalism will be in stores in mid May). Kent and his team operate in two domains: courts of law, and the court of public opinion. Kent combs the news daily (“like mad,” he says) for cases and causes to take up. “We try to have one national case going at all times, one regional case, and one local, in our own backyard of Atlanta.”

Despite the failure of Democrats and Republicans alike to heed the Constitution while in office, Kent does not despair. “I try to be a happy warrior,” he replied. “I agree that both parties run roughshod over the Constitution. But that’s the great thing about having constitutional public-interest law firms like ours. We’re the only ones going in to the courtrooms saying ‘This is what the Constitution really means.’”

It’s a lonely but essential fight. With Congress so willing to bow out of difficult issues, the courts have become the battleground for conservatives.

Or, as Kent puts it: “The courts are the first line of lunacy when it comes to liberals and the last line of defense when it comes to conservatives.”


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