Institute for Justice

  • Public-Policy Reform
  • 1991

In 1991, former Reagan administration lawyer Chip Mellor approached philanthropist Charles Koch with an idea for a “national law firm on liberty” that he would co-found with litigator Clint Bolick. Koch pledged up to $500,000 per year for three years. The Institute for Justice never needed this full amount, though. It quickly raised additional funds from other sources, especially as it began accepting and winning cases.

IJ rapidly became one of the leading firms pursuing “public interest” cases in the courts, usually for no fee, by aggressively litigating in four areas: economic rights, private-property protection, school choice, and free speech. It has taken numerous cases all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In Zelman v. Simmons-Harris (2002), for instance, the high court endorsed public funding of private-school vouchers. In Kelo v. City of New London (2005) the justices rejected IJ’s call to forbid use of eminent domain for economic development, but a public backlash stirred up by the case and harnessed by IJ resulted in 44 states passing laws that restrict eminent domain—highlighting the success of IJ’s model combining good lawyering with strategic research, media savvy, and political activism.

The organization’s second donor, retired investor Robert Wilson, helped fuel it to new heights when, after years of making annual gifts of $35,000 and promising more only “when the time is right,” he issued a challenge grant in 2008. Over a period of five years, he donated $15 million on the condition that IJ raise $2 of additional new contributions for every $1 he donated. This $45 million total infusion allowed the organization to expand significantly and become one of the nation’s leading litigants for liberty. In 2014, futures trader and longtime IJ supporter William Dunn revived the 1:2 challenge with an offer to give IJ $5 million if the organization would raise $10 million to match it.

In 2010, IJ launched an initiative to challenge civil forfeiture, which allows law-enforcement officials to permanently seize private property including homes, cars, and cash even if the owners haven’t been charged or convicted of a crime. Applying its trademark mix of research, cutting-edge litigation, media campaigning, and legislative advocacy, IJ set out to end or limit the practice. Its research report, “Policing for Profit: The Abuse of Civil Asset Forfeiture Laws” graded every state forfeiture law and found that only three states received a B or higher. The institute simultaneously launched litigation in Georgia, Massachusetts, and Philadelphia, and lawsuits against the federal government as well, challenging currency seizures.

Early in 2015, the U.S. Department of Justice announced it was suspending its program for sharing proceeds of civil forfeitures with police departments, and would review how it uses the law. At the same time, legislation was introduced in the House and Senate to rein in civil-forfeiture practices.

By this time, the Institute for Justice had more than 80 employees (about half of them lawyers), five state offices in addition to its headquarters, and a clinic at the University of Chicago where small businesses can get legal help. Individual donors supplied 85 percent of the institute’s $19 million budget in 2014.