Politics & Policy

Fighting for the American Dream

Here’s to Chip Mellor and the Institute for Justice.

Twenty-five years ago, there was no public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the American Dream, those rights that are essential to achieving a better life for yourself and passing it on to the next generation.

Property rights were under unbridled assault from regulatory takings and eminent domain, for the benefit of powerful private interests who wielded government power. Economic liberty, the right to earn an honest living in the occupation of your choice, was hopelessly tied up in red tape, with all the momentum going against entrepreneurs. Only reviled and fringe-inhabiting free-speech rights seemed to attract any legal support, while anyone who sought to speak about mainstream economic or political issues found their ability to effectively communicate cabined off by one government-imposed regulation after another. And there was no national legal champion to advance and defend school choice.

Then Chip Mellor opened the doors of the Institute for Justice, the national law firm for liberty.

Today, Mellor retires as IJ’s president and takes over as its second chairman of the board. During his tenure, IJ has grown from a five-person startup to an institution with a staff of 95, half of whom are attorneys; it has litigated five U.S. Supreme Court cases; it is currently litigating 43 cases in 24 states; and it is among the less than 1 percent of nonprofits that have received Charity Navigator’s four-star rating for 14 consecutive years.

Mellor’s ‘merry band of libertarian litigators’ (a nickname coined by George F. Will) has secured one victory after another.

Mellor brought to the Institute for Justice a rare combination of keen vision, unyielding adherence to principles, and a common touch that allowed him to translate esoteric, ivory-tower ideas into the language of Main Street. His law firm would fight for the economically and politically disenfranchised and give them not only a voice in the court of public opinion but also capable and tenacious — and free — legal representation in the courts of law while suing only one entity: the government. As a result of his leadership, the ideal of freedom has become a tangible reality for one set of IJ clients after another — from taxicab drivers in Denver to van operators in New York City; from small businesses otherwise barred from advertising their wares to tens of thousands of school-choice parents whose kids can finally get access to a quality education.

This is litigation at the cutting edge. It has been championed by news outlets nationwide, turning IJ clients into national spokespeople for constitutionally enshrined individual rights. But it wouldn’t stop there. In taking on such cases and winning, Mellor and his organization established a constitutional beachhead from which other even more sophisticated litigation would be launched, not by Mellor or IJ co-founder Clint Bolick but the next generation of IJ public-interest advocates they trained. Their work now stretches beyond pure litigation to include award-winning communications, strategic social-science research, grassroots activism, and more.

Succeeding generations of IJ attorneys have pitched seemingly unwinnable battles to fight the insatiable growth of government power and earned Mellor’s encouragement and support. Despite the steep odds and lengthy precedent stacked against IJ, Mellor’s “merry band of libertarian litigators” (a nickname coined by columnist George F. Will) has secured one victory after another:

‐striking down the 1984 National Organ Transplant Act’s ban on compensating most bone-marrow donors, a move that will lead the way to striking down a host of other arbitrary and irrational restrictions imposed by the regulatory state;

‐sustaining a strategic assault on political-speech restrictions that were disguised as campaign-finance laws, thereby clearing the way for super PACs through the IJ-litigated SpeechNow.org case;

‐and taking on the multi-billion-dollar civil forfeiture machine that has allowed government officials to police for profit, which set the stage for the U.S. attorney general’s announcement this past week of the suspension of the Department of Justice’s $1.2 billion asset-forfeiture program.

With one improbable victory after another, IJ has built a legacy of accomplishment at reducing the size and scope of government power. Even in the face of defeat and obstacles, Mellor has led by example, continually displaying the calm and unflinching courage necessary to continue the fight for freedom.

#share#Two remarkable examples stand out among many. Less than one week after IJ lost the infamous Kelo eminent-domain case before the U.S. Supreme Court, Mellor assembled the entire staff of the Institute for Justice and announced the launch of the multi-million-dollar Hands Off My Home campaign designed to reject at the state level the Supreme Court’s decision; this would be done using state-based litigation, lobbying, and grassroots activism. As a result of this effort, 47 states now have better protection of private property. And shortly after an accident that broke two of the vertebrae in his back, leaving him unable even to carry his own briefcase into court, Mellor went there and offered a clear and passionate defense of the New York City van drivers and continued the fight until the vans were afforded the freedom to operate. Today, thousands of vans across New York City not only put people to work, they take people to work, thanks to Mellor’s undaunted advocacy.

Moreover, under Mellor’s direction, IJ has taken the lead in helping to restore the courts as a check and balance on the other branches of government, creating the term “judicial engagement” and using it as a means to urge the courts to fully enforce all of the Constitution’s limits on government in every case.

Our nation may have drifted into an unseemly and detrimental divisiveness and lost much of its sense of mission, but that has never been the case at the Institute for Justice under Mellor’s direction. The son of a factory manager and of a mom who supported the family as a church secretary after her husband’s death when Mellor was 15, he never lost sight of the simple goodness and time-honored dreams of the everyday Americans who want nothing more than to work hard, to demand respect for what they own, to freely speak their minds, and to secure a good education for their kids so they might have a better future. That has been and remains the vision of the Institute for Justice, which Mellor has led for the past 24 years, and underscores why IJ will remain an essential institution for decades to come for those who cherish and seek to protect the American Dream.


The Latest