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The Institute for Justice cultivates its image as what columnist George Will once called “a merry band of libertarian litigators.” Its tenth anniversary yearbook in 2001 was entitled “Changing the World & Having Fun Doing It,” and it featured an eclectic assortment of clients: taxi drivers, casket merchants, and African hair braiders — all fighting ham-handed government regulation. Visitors to the institute’s office on Pennsylvania Avenue, a block away from the White House, are quickly alerted to its open architecture, with glass-paned walls and partitions symbolizing an egalitarian, no-secrets workplace. Yet the institute’s lawyers are hardly a freewheeling, sandaled crew of elves with no boss Santa telling them what to do. When several of the lawyers file into a conference room for a group interview, any such preconception melts; all are conservatively dressed, with muted shirts and ties for the men and a business suit for the woman. And there is a clear leader in the bunch: Chip Mellor III, the institute’s president and general counsel. “We are a merry, well-dressed band of litigators,” Mellor says with a smile when the seeming dress code is remarked upon. The institute is a “fast-paced” operation, he explains, and at a moment’s notice its lawyers have to be ready to head to court, meet with clients, or sit for a television interview. All are important tasks for IJ lawyers, and professional appearance is essential. The crisp air of formality is a reassuring sign that, as much fun as they have at the Institute for Justice, they know that what they are up to is stone-cold serious. And it has just gotten even more so: The institute has two cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, which has limited tolerance for merriment. Swedenburg v. Kelly, challenging long-standing barriers to the interstate shipment of wines to consumers, was argued in December. And Kelo v. New London, a cutting-edge assault on eminent domain power, will be argued in the spring. “This is not a bunch of kids who just want to see how many hackles they can raise,” says Robert Levy, a member of IJ’s board of directors and a senior fellow at the kindred Cato Institute. “They are out to get things done.” The doubleheader at the Supreme Court marks something of a return to the institute’s core values. Mellor and cofounder Clint Bolick created the institute on libertarian, economic liberty principles, drawing from Mellor’s think tank experiences in the late 1980s at the Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy. But soon after IJ opened its doors, it took an unexpected turn into the Washington limelight. Bolick, a colleague of Clarence Thomas at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, wrote an otherwise unremarkable 1993 column in The Wall Street Journal calling Lani Guinier a “quota queen,” and, Mellor recalls, “everything just erupted.” Under public pressure, President Bill Clinton soon withdrew Guinier’s nomination as the civil rights chief for the U.S. Department of Justice, and Bolick’s image as a dragon slayer was set. “But affirmative action was never part of our strategic litigation blueprint,” says Mellor. “It got to be a distraction.” Bolick was also the leading litigator for school voucher programs — an integral part of the institute’s agenda, even though its link to libertarianism is shaky; using government funds to pay for parochial school tuition extends the reach of government, rather than limiting it. “School choice is not a principled libertarian position,” Levy acknowledges. Mellor sees no contradiction. “We view it as trying to provide opportunities to choose, to break open a monopoly provider,” namely the public school system. In any event, the issue was a vehicle for the institute’s first high court victory: Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, which said that school vouchers do not violate the First Amendment. Bolick, who argued before the Court in Zelman, has moved to Arizona, where he is heading a new pro-voucher coalition. He remains the institute’s “counsel for strategic litigation” and was slated to argue in the wine import case. Now is Mellor’s time to step forward, as the institute argues two classic economic liberty cases. Mellor is not as much of a media star as Bolick, and seems content to let other staffers be quoted in press releases and on television. “He’s Mr. Inside to Clint’s Mr. Outside,” says one friend of both. Mellor seems to be the force who imposes discipline and standards on the cases that the institute champions. Each case file has a one-sentence mission statement, says managing director Deborah Simpson: “It may be a long sentence, but we never lose sight of the mission.” All the cases, says Mellor, involve “seemingly lost causes,” touching on areas of the law that are not already crawling with lawyers. Another prerequisite: The clients must be willing to fight long-term for the principle, not just to settle their own dispute. And though the goal is economic liberty, the clients tend not to be corporations but rather “little guys against evil villains,” says Mellor. Corporations have their own lawyers and are often the biggest backers of the guildlike economic regulations the institute battles against. Mellor says the institute is free to go up against corporations in part because only 2 percent of its $6.5 million annual budget comes from corporate coffers. Two-thirds comes from individual donors and the rest from foundations, says Mellor — led by The Walton Family Foundation, The Annie E. Casey Foundation, and The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation. Virginia wine maker Juanita Swedenburg is a classic client. In wanting to ship her wines to fans in New York and elsewhere, she is challenging protectionist laws that benefit the entrenched wholesalers and distributors of alcoholic beverages. Likewise, Susette Kelo is not only going up against New London, Conn., which wants to take her home by eminent domain, but Pfizer Inc., the company that wants to acquire her property and others’ for economic development. Another essential criterion in selecting cases is how they will play in “the court of public opinion,” says John Kramer, the longtime vice president for communications whose role in case strategy seems as strong as the lawyers’. The eminent domain campaign, for example, was launched with the headline-grabbing publication of an institute study documenting more than 10,000 cases of eminent domain “abuse” nationwide. When the institute takes its eminent domain show on the road, it kicks off community meetings by showing the Australian movie Castle, a comedy about a family that won’t give up its home for airport expansion. “It gets people cheering,” says Kramer. The institute knows that showmanship won’t win cases before the Supreme Court, and it is careful to draft briefs that blend their clients’ personal stories with fetching legal arguments that will appeal to the libertarian streak of a number of current justices. “People know an IJ brief when they read it,” boasts Mellor. The public component of the litigation is important, in part, as a way of hedging the institute’s bets. Not all its cases win in court; neither Swedenburg nor Kelo are sure winners, by a long shot. But the public exposure that the litigation attracts along the way has often translated into legislative action. “We have a lot of uphill fights, and the hardest thing in the world is to have to pick up the phone and tell a client we lost,” says Mellor. “But we don’t leave it on the playing field. We keep fighting. There’s a joy of combat in the face of great adversity. We are happy warriors.”

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