Chapter 8: Working through the Courts
The Heritage Foundation and the Brookings Institution may differ in ideological orientation, but they share one important feature in common: They are both general-service think tanks that work on a broad range of topics, pumping out research and analysis on everything from military security to health care to bank regulation. Visiting their websites is like shopping at Walmart or Target: They stock a little bit of everything. This offers advantages—convenience, economies of scale, powerful branding. Yet customers sometimes prefer specialty stores.
Moreover, think tanks are mostly oriented toward influencing Congress, the President, and the legislative process. But of course there is another branch making public policy in America, and that is the courts. Starting in the 1960s and ’70s, liberal philanthropists pioneered the concept of single-issue public-interest law firms. Suing at every opportunity, often on novel grounds, these litigators exerted enormous influence on public policy, especially in the area of civil rights.
Philanthropists funding lawsuits as a way to improve public policies was not a brand-new concept. Booker T. Washington secretly financed the Giles v. Harris case way back in 1903, and throughout the rest of his life paid for other litigation aimed at undoing racial disenfranchisement. (See more detail in the 1903 entry of the Annex to this book.) But paying for lawsuits openly and on a vast scale was something new in the 1960s. In our current era of freewheeling litigation, legal activism continues to be a powerful strategy, offering large openings for philanthropists who want to take a more narrowly focused approach to changing public policies.
In the early ’60s, the Ford Foundation was America’s biggest philanthropy, and the foundation’s grants pushed a fairly mainstream liberalism. As the civil-rights revolution unfolded, though, the foundation began to promote rapid social change. The foundation made a particular leap into activism when it hired McGeorge Bundy as its new president in 1966.
A national security adviser in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, Bundy was an enthusiast for the re-engineering of society by government. At the Ford Foundation, “Mac,” as he was known to friends, was literally a limousine liberal: “Every morning at 8:15 a limousine ferried Mac downtown to his spacious office in the Ford Foundation headquarters,” writes Kai Bird in The Color of Truth. From there, Bundy steered Ford into a dramatic new phase, spending about $200 million each year—vastly more than any other player, and more than most other players combined—with large sums going to some quite radical efforts. Achieving quick alterations of public policy was goal No. 1.
McGeorge Bundy had become convinced that racism was the biggest problem in America. Leading a moral and political crusade with race issues at its center became his obsession. Racial grievance groups became the favorite recipients of Ford’s enormous cash flow, rising from 2.5 percent of the foundation’s grants in 1960 to fully 40 percent by 1970.
Bundy thought the Ford Foundation was much too conventional and timid. “What really large and constructive forces has it let loose in our society?” he asked. The aggressive agenda that Bundy wanted to promote actually outstripped the ability of the traditional institutions of liberal public policy to carry out the spending. So Ford created many new groups. Each had a special emphasis, and there was a powerful overall interest among them in using litigation battles as a tool for uprooting and re-seeding various fields of public policy. Many of these new activist legal groups owed their existence entirely to the foundation’s giving.
“The civil rights movement has long received support from varied private sources, including foundations, corporations, and individuals,” wrote Robert McKay of New York University Law School. “But litigation work has received a relatively small share of that total, with the bulk of support going to the more traditional areas of research, scholarship grants, and the strengthening of institutions weakened by discrimination.” Ford’s innovation, McKay noted, was in actively triggering litigation.
The foundation and its surrogates would seek out parties with standing to sue, initiate challenges, pay powerful legal teams to build cases, and try to leave behind large and lasting precedents. “Many people, including elements of the organized bar, have long felt that to provide financial assistance for the conduct of litigation, regardless of the metis of the case, might be an inappropriate intrusion in the judicial process,” wrote McKay. The Ford Foundation’s went much further than just paying for litigation. It fomented public-interest litigation, and created groups whose entire mission was to reshape public policy through lawsuits.
The effort kicked off in 1967 with big grants to groups like the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. One of the first products of this campaign was to establish the principle of “disparate impact”—which maintained that policies of colorblind neutrality could be considered discriminatory if they coincided with unbalanced racial outcomes. Soon, Ford-powered litigation created policies of direct racial preference in public contracting, education, and employment.
The real groundbreaking philanthropy was what came next. The Ford Foundation created several ethnic action groups from scratch. An important one was the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which received more than $2 million in startup cash in 1969, and heavy ongoing support in succeeding years. Its major achievement was to argue that African Americans were only one of many groups discriminated against in American life.
Before long, voting-rights law evolved to guarantee the creation of majority-Hispanic jurisdictions, even at the price of gerrymandered district lines. Ethnic fillips were added to racial preferences and quotas. MALDEF prevailed in Plyer v. Doe, in which the Supreme Court decided that public schools must open their doors to illegal aliens. The group filed lawsuits to require that English learners receive public-school instruction in Spanish. Support from the Ford Foundation was crucial in making all of this possible.
And MALDEF was just one extension of Ford’s civil-rights crusade. The foundation also founded several other litigation engines in the early 1970s. The Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund worked to establish native-language instruction as a legal right for language-minority children. The Native American Rights Fund frequently clashed with the federal government over tribal lands.
Soon, women were also defined as an aggrieved group (though not a minority, since they make up more than half of the population). Ford launched the Women’s Law Fund. It gave birth to the Women’s Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union. The Minority Women’s Employment Program was set up at the NAACP-LDF, and the Chicana Rights Project got funding at MALDEF. The most influential of these was the ACLU’s endeavor, co-founded by Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Her strategy was to file lawsuits based on clever readings of the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause, leading judges to wipe out gender distinctions in everything from employment to family law.
By creating numerous heavily funded public-interest law firms that would litigate on civil rights, the Ford Foundation met Bundy’s objective of achieving dramatic results within a relatively short period of time. These groups left a permanent large mark on public policy.
This tidal shift inspired a response from thinkers with different approaches to race and ethnic issues. Thomas Sowell, Abigail Thernstrom, Linda Chavez, and others commenced research or started organizations, often with their own (much more modest) philanthropic funding. They argued that racial preferences and quotas violate the principle of equal opportunity that is the best base for civil-rights protection. Right-of-center donors tried to offer help that could balance some of the Ford Foundation’s legal activism.
While conservatives did not embrace public-interest law as quickly or as fully as liberals, they did make some early efforts in the field. In 1968, the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation began to help workers fend off compulsory unionization via court cases. In the 1970s, several broad-spectrum conservative public-interest law firms were founded on a regional basis. The most successful was the Pacific Legal Foundation, started in 1973. Its initial backers were allies of California Governor Ronald Reagan (who became frustrated by legal efforts to block welfare reform), and business leaders responding to environmental litigation. Before long, a number of similar organizations sprang up.
These initial efforts from the right were weak, however. A memo prepared in the early 1980s by the staff of the Olin Foundation stated the problem bluntly: “The bright hopes of ten years ago that conservatives could create effective counterparts to the liberals groups that have taken their policy agendas to the courtroom, such as the American Civil Liberties Union and the Sierra Club, have produced more disappointments than success. The loose network of law firms has not been conspicuously effective, well-organized, or stable.”
Conservative philanthropists concerned with the imbalance in the courts found few existing nonprofits they could turn to. So in the 1980s they created new forms. Attorneys Michael Greve and Michael McDonald circulated a proposal to open the Center for Individual Rights, a different kind of public-interest firm. Having witnessed how weak staffing, a limited regional emphasis, and overreliance on corporate patronage had caused previous forays by conservatives into public-interest law to fail, they proposed to build a firm that defined itself not by particular issue but as a defender of liberty, with enough horsepower to establish important legal precedents.
Greve and McDonald rounded up initial support from the Bradley, Olin, and Smith Richardson foundations, then went to work. The main legacy of the Center for Individual Rights today is the lawsuits they filed in opposition to use of racial preferences to manipulate the student bodies of public universities. In 1996, the center prevailed in Hopwood v. Texas, a federal case that notched a clear victory against color-coded admissions. Seven years later, the center took a pair of cases involving race and admissions to the Supreme Court, but suffered a setback when the justices accepted race-based admissions at the University of Michigan for certain purposes.
By this time, however, conservative foundations had built an infrastructure of civil-rights organizations and arguments that challenged race-conscious public policies in both courts of law and the court of public opinion. One of the new organizations they financed, the Center for Equal Opportunity led by Linda Chavez, issued a series of reports that published data on the admissions scores of students at public universities broken down by race and ethnicity—showing, despite fervent denials from officials, that skin color and ancestry were huge factors in determining which students got accepted and which got excluded.
Evidence of this sort changed the public mood. In 1996, California voters approved Proposition 209, also known as the California Civil Rights Initiative, which banned the use of race in public contracting, employment, and university admissions. Relying on donated support, Ward Connerly of the American Civil Rights Institute led the campaign. He later became involved in similarly successful measures in Arizona, Michigan, Washington, and elsewhere. Efforts to push federal legislation, however, went nowhere. Increasingly, the left and right approaches to civil rights were locked in uneasy stalemate.
There continued to be opportunities for savvy donors to refine the law, however. The Project for Fair Representation matched plaintiffs and attorneys over a period of years to test the legitimacy and boundaries of racial affirmative action in college admissions, the drawing of voting districts, and other areas. Thanks to philanthropic support, the group was able to take cases all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, winning rulings that placed new limits on the use of racial preferences.
In 1991, a new right-of-center public-interest law firm called the Institute for Justice began to define civil rights in fresh ways. The group suggested, for instance, that parents have a civil right to educational choice for their children. Philanthropist Charles Koch had pledged up to $1.5 million for the creation of a “national law firm on liberty.” The Institute for Justice never needed the full Koch pledge, because 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. It aggressively litigated in four areas: economic rights, free speech, private property protection, and school choice. It has taken numerous cases all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In Zelman v. Simmons-Harris the high court endorsed public funding of private-school vouchers. In Kelo v. City of New London the justices rejected IJ’s call to forbid use of eminent domain for economic development, but a public backlash stirred up by the case compelled state legislatures around the country to restrict the use of eminent domain via new laws—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. He would donate $15 million if IJ would raise a matching $30 million. This double infusion allowed the organization to expand significantly and become one of the nation’s leading litigants for liberty.
Philanthropists have also been active in supporting litigation that tests the legality of various provisions of President Obama’s Affordable Care Act. Donor have supported petitioners and groups filing supporting briefs in challenges to Obamacare’s funding mechanisms, the operation of state exchanges, the allowability of its Independent Payment Advisory Board, the extent of employer mandates, the law’s infringements on religious freedoms, and other issues. These questions strike at the very heart of the Affordable Care Act, and its Constitutionality and durability will not be settled until these donor-supported suits have been adjudicated.
The latest signal moment in donor-funded public-policy litigation came in 2014. Silicon Valley entrepreneur David Welch and his wife had spent years trying to improve public schools in their home state of California. They tried traditional education grants, funding new teaching methods, bringing technology into schools. They soon realized that in many public schools, incompetent teachers made necessary educational improvements impossible.
So in 2011 Welch founded a group called Students Matter, and gathered facts about the forces blocking school reform. He found nine students who reported that their education suffered after they were stuck in classrooms with poor teachers. Between 2011 and 2014, Welch spent several million dollars hiring a top-flight legal team and building a court case that California’s teacher-tenure laws—which grant permanent employment after just 18 months on the job, make it nearly impossible to fire even the most terrible teachers, and require school districts to lay teachers off based on seniority rather than competence—deprive students of the right to be educated as guaranteed by the state constitution. Welch was also canny enough to put up the funds for an accompanying public-relations campaign to fend off a massive counterattack by teacher unions, which, predictably, was quick in coming.
In 2014, a judge of the Los Angeles Superior Court ruled that “there are a significant number of grossly ineffective teachers currently active in California classrooms” and that this causes thousands of students to fall years behind in math and reading. “The evidence is compelling. Indeed, it shocks the conscience,” wrote Judge Rolf Treu in his Vergara v. State of California decision striking down seniority-based job protections for unionized teachers.
The state appealed, a process that could take three years. Almost immediately, though, other philanthropists and education reformers began to consider similar donor-funded lawsuits to take on rigid teacher tenure in states like New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, New Mexico, and Oregon. With traditional reform via legislation having proved inadequate to solve a damaging public problem, a donor hacked out a new path around the entrenched interest groups—and toward a policy solution executed by the courts.
Policy Player Profile: Clint Bolick
For lawyer Clint Bolick, understanding the power of philanthropically funded “public interest” litigation begins with a history lesson. “For decades, starting with the creation of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the founding of the ACLU early in the twentieth century, followed by the rise of groups in the 1960s and ’70s that deployed lawsuits against ethnic and environmental grievances, the Left had free rein in the courts. There really were no conservative organizations that were active at all.”
“Starting in the late 1970s, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce added a little bit of balance with some conservative public-interest litigation. Initially, theirs was very much a defensive strategy, designed to blunt the highly effective liberal, environmental, and civil rights organizations that were basically setting all the new standards in our courts. Out of that came the first generation of conservative public-interest law firms, organized on a regional basis with the idea that each group would focus on issues important in their area.”
“These entities had very mixed success. They tended to receive a large percentage of their giving from corporations, and I would characterize them as pro-business rather than pro-free enterprise. They didn’t attract great talent, did not win many cases, and had a limited impact. Several fell by the wayside. The two that remain today are Pacific Legal Foundation and Mountain States Legal Foundation, which have evolved into effective organizations. Chip Mellor and I, before we co-founded the Institute for Justice, both worked at Mountain States Legal Foundation, and we were frustrated by its defensive agenda and narrow pro-business approach at that time. So we started thinking about what a more effective conservative public-interest law firm could look like.”
After a season in the Reagan administration, Bolick and Mellor had their chance. “We put together a game plan for what would become the Institute for Justice. It was the birth of a second generation of conservative public-interest law firms. Our model differed from the original versions in several important respects. It was national rather than regional. It set goals rather than responding to the Left’s agenda. It developed constitutional precedents that we wanted to achieve.”
“We believed our mission would attract support from foundations and individual contributors—donors with less of a mercenary self-interest, and more desire to establish legal principles. We received our seed funding from Charles and David Koch. They gave us a five-year commitment, and we moved very quickly to diversify the funding base to include other foundations and individuals.”
The surge of donor interest exceeded Bolick’s expectations. “No one had really tried to get individual donors invested in litigation. And it turned out that donors were very moved by the stories of the people we represented. It was more action-oriented than research-oriented work, and people felt invested in the cases that we filed.”
“We wanted to avoid dependence on a small number of large contributors. It was very important for us to have autonomy, and I think our donors appreciated that we weren’t dominated by contributors who might be able to influence the work we were doing. We started with the Kochs by going to them with a detailed game plan. They invested in it instead of coming up with their own plan or imposing or suggesting one. They were not deeply involved in strategy. They didn’t have previous experience in public-interest litigation. I think we were their first model.”
“The Kochs have evolved in their philanthropic pursuits. Today they are bringing together individual donors and bundling supporters in effective ways. An individual contributor who has $100,000 to invest in the freedom movement oftentimes will not go very far, but the Kochs have learned how to connect that donor with like-minded fellows. They have also encouraged investment in judicial races across the country, which is very, very important.”
“The donor base is broader today. I received my very first seed funding, long before the Institute for Justice, from the Bradley Foundation. I opened the Washington, D.C. office of Landmark Legal Foundation—one lawyer with an idea—and they took a risk on me. Bradley has continued to be visionary in strengthening state-based policy organizations and making them more sophisticated and comprehensive in their approach, adding the litigation side, the lobbying side, the investigative journalism side, whatever they don’t have. The Randolph Foundation, Searle Freedom Trust, Dan Peters, and the Challenge Foundation are among those who have been especially open to taking risks. So pioneer donors don’t have to go it alone quite so much anymore.”
After years building court cases at IJ and the Alliance for School Choice, Bolick joined a new wave of public-interest litigators a few years ago. “The third generation is the Goldwater Institute model, started in 2007. It was the first time a litigation organization was attached to a state-based policy organization. Our focus is on state constitutional litigation, which is a very useful supplement to federal litigation. We use litigation to extend and complement policy work, and we share infrastructure, fundraising, communications, and research with the wider policy organization. This Goldwater model has now been replicated in ten states.”
Given the increasingly liberal politics of the federal court system, Bolick sees state courts as today’s primary opportunity. “The state courts and state constitutions are really the virgin territory for conservative public-interest law groups. I see vast expansion opportunities there. State constitutional litigation is still very much in its infancy, and there is much untapped potential.”
“Free-market reform is now likelier to come from the states than the federal government. The freedom movement should be litigating in all 50 states.”
“States are incubating ideas that have potential to spread rapidly to other places. For example, I’m very, very excited about the Vergara v. California case that knocked down teacher tenure since it has created so many dysfunctional schools. I’ve been working with activists in California to develop a follow-up to Vergara that would challenge public-school attendance zones and push for open school enrollment in California.”
“You look at what’s possible in a given state context, pull together a first-rate legal team, and use the courts to accomplish something that you could never accomplish in the political arena. One thing a number of litigation organizations are focusing on is reining in the power of public-employee unions. In different states that means different things. So here in Arizona we’ve challenged the widespread practice where employees who were hired to be cops or firefighters are instead paid to work for their unions. They are still on the public payroll but report every day to union headquarters. We were the first to challenge so-called ‘union release,’ and so far, knock on wood, we’ve been successful.”
In all future cases, litigation should be coupled with media campaigns. “Every good lawsuit filed by a public-interest law firm should be accompanied by an equally aggressive and sophisticated media agenda. Sometimes you lose a case in the courtroom and win in the court of public opinion, as we did in the Kelo case, where eminent domain powers were abused. Quite apart from what transpires in the courtroom, a lawsuit can be a catalyst for policy change in the legislature that would not have happened without the lawsuit.”
Combining litigation and policy in one organization can also yield outsized results. “I think that both sides make the other more successful. When we go to court challenging a corporate subsidy, we have a team of economists who help us identify the most vulnerable corporate subsidies. On the other hand, any time we walk into a legislator’s office, they know that we’re not just bringing them a good idea. We may sue if we’re not successful in the legislative arena. We have big litigation guns if necessary.”
Compared to other branches of public-policy philanthropy, funding litigation is fairly easy to assess for failure or success. “Litigation organizations have somewhat of an advantage over policy organizations here, because it’s much easier to measure victory in tangible terms.” Bolick says this suits his personal temperament and interests. “I love issues that are resolved, and the benefit of litigation is that you can win a complete victory without sacrificing your principles in the way that passing legislation often requires. A lot of donors would rather go for broke and risk loss when the alternative is partial victory. For people who see things in black-and-white rather than shades of gray, litigation is where they can make an investment with potential for a serious payoff.”
Policy Player Profile: Seamus Hasson & Bill Mumma
At the Becket Fund, founder Seamus Hasson and president Bill Mumma have relied on donors who understand the long-term importance of their strategy. Providing free, first-rate legal representation to practitioners of all religious faiths when they come under social pressure has been Becket’s mission from the beginning. In the process, the nonprofit law firm not only aids individuals under duress, but sets precedents in our top courts that protect the religious freedoms of all Americans.
Religious liberty became a passion of Seamus Hasson very early. “I actually went to law school with the idea of creating a public-interest firm that would defend religious liberties. It dawned on me how important that was in our country. At the time, religious freedom was a divisive issue. One side was saying religion is bad for you, almost like smoking. It’s something you can do in private if you really want to, but whatever you do don’t do it in public. On the other side, the common argument was simply, “This is a Christian country,” which was legally and historically incorrect.”
“So we had a growing problem. Courts were stripping people of their right to follow their conscience and express themselves religiously. But the public counterarguments were weak. What was needed was a defense of religious pluralism.”
“The answer is that religion is a natural keystone in human culture. And a good thing. I founded the Becket Fund to supply that answer, and to represent all religions, not just Christians, not just Protestants, not just Catholics, but all the religions. Anglicans to Zoroastrians, I like to say. We don’t endorse the faiths, just the individual’s right to practice sincere religion. We even stand up for a person’s right to be wrong,” states Hasson.
“Many potential donors said we’d get more supporters if we focused on just Christians. But there were already people doing that. And they weren’t winning the culture war. Fortunately we found donors willing to try a new tack: the Randolph, Bradley, and Olin foundations, and one little old lady.”
“Our first notable case involved the Beginners Bible. Zack was a first grader in a New Jersey public school. The teacher had an activity where students brought their favorite books to read in front of the class. His favorite book was a cartoon version of the Bible, and he wanted to read the story of Jacob and Esau. It didn’t even mention the word God. But his teacher told him he had to sit down and be quiet, that he couldn’t read that publicly in school.”
“Zack’s mom felt this was a violation of freedom of expression. So we went to war. About the same time, and also in New Jersey, we fought for a Muslim police officer who wanted to grow his beard. Our donor roster grew after these cases. We started with a $300,000 annual budget and quickly rose to $5 million,” Hasson concludes.
Several other top-flight public-interest law firms focused on protecting religious freedom have grown up in parallel with the Becket Fund over the past two decades. For instance, the very same year Hasson founded Becket, the Alliance Defense Fund was created to offer a counterbalance to the ACLU on issues of church and state. Now known as the Alliance Defending Freedom, the group has been influential in Supreme Court decisions, legal training, public education, and other areas.
Becket Fund president Bill Mumma notes that “by definition, religious liberty is about the law, so building a religious-liberty movement requires law firms. A range of firms have grown up, employing different philosophies about how best to protect religious freedom, but they aren’t antithetical to each other. They all take on different aspects of the fight. Our mission is very focused on higher-level appeals that will set a precedent.”
“A donor might say, ‘The local school district stomped on this poor Christian teacher. You ought to take that case. This person is suffering.’ That’s true, yet it may not be a case the Becket Fund can take. If it’s in an area of law that has already been established in favor of the teacher our answer is ‘Get yourself a good lawyer. You’re going to win.’ Our limited resources need to be reserved to carving out new protections and precedents in areas where the law is not yet clear in favor of religious liberty.”
“We have relied on donors who are already knowledgeable about the law, and understand we don’t make these choices because we are or aren’t sympathetic to the person involved. They understand the importance of strategy and case selection and the long process of appeal to set a precedent.”
“At the same time, our donors are not passive. Some of them have been helpful in terms of identifying cases. Some recommend clients, and have people reach out to us.”
“For future litigation, one of our areas of interest is the Blaine Amendments. In the early 1900s, Senator Blaine tried to pass a Constitutional amendment that would prevent public money from going to Catholic schools. His federal effort failed, so he went to the states and asked them to add Blaine amendments to their state constitutions, prohibiting public funding of church-connected schools.”
“The Ku Klux Klan got involved. Anti-Catholic sentiment was really hot. The public feeling eventually passed away, but Blaine amendments remain on the books in states all across America. Now instead of Protestants fighting Catholics over these amendments, it’s anti-religious groups who want to keep them fighting defenders of religious freedom who want them repealed. Helping the religious-freedom side win will require a long campaign.”
“Another effort we’re pursuing with donor support is to protect people’s ability to practice their profession without committing practices that are contrary to their religious views. This is an issue in health care, where nurses and doctors are sometimes forced to agree to participate in abortion, for instance. If an employer were to say ‘no Catholic doctors allowed,’ that obviously would be impermissible. But conscience rights for religious professionals are not well protected.”
“Another frontier is at universities that are now saying it’s discriminatory for student groups to require their leaders to share the central convictions of the group. A Christian student association cannot require its president to believe in Jesus Christ. If a group of atheist students show up at the public meeting and vote an atheist as the president of the Bible study, it has to be accepted. We think that’s a violation of religious liberty.”
Philanthropists interested in religion will increasingly find it impossible to avoid law and public policy, says Mumma. “All the religions of the world occupy themselves with marriage, births, raising of the family, sickness, old age, death. As governments grow bigger and intrude more and more in these areas, government enters space that was formerly staked out by religious organizations. It dictates issues where people look to religion for answers. This clash is intrinsic to the expansion of the government. So legal action and political action are required to sort this out.”
“If defenders of religious freedom have the resources to fight, I am optimistic about what will happen over time. But it’s like tuning a piano or a guitar. Every so often you have to go back and tighten the strings.”