The Civitas Institute Center for Law and Freedom functions as North Carolina’s conservative public interest law firm. In this capacity, we provide legal and educational services at no cost as a part of the Civitas Institute’s overall charitable mission. To better understand who CLF is and what we do, it is necessary to first understand what conservative public interest law (CPIL) is, and how the movement began.
Public interest law generally can be defined as the practice of law focused on furthering the interest of the public in general, or some significant part of the public. Public interest attorneys handle all sorts of issues, ranging from constitutional rights to racial discrimination to regulatory lawsuits. Conservative public interest law in particular is the practice of law with the goal of furthering conservative ideas and causes.
It is hard to pinpoint exactly where the CPIL movement began. One could argue that the first legal case brought for a “conservative” purpose was the 1896 case of Plessy v. Ferguson, in which a group of New Orleans railway car owners challenged a Louisiana law requiring blacks and whites to ride in separate railway cars. The law was detrimental to the economic interests of the railway car owners, as well as abhorrent to the equal protection clause of the United States Constitution. However, the Supreme Court famously held that separate but equal was in fact equal, a decision that was not overturned until Brown v. Board of Education more than a half century later.
A more formal beginning of the CPIL movement can be found in the establishment of organizations of such as the Landmark Legal Foundation (LLF) and Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF), two of the nation’s oldest conservative law firms, which both still operate today. These organizations in many ways constitute the “first generation” of conservative public interest law. They both continue to litigate property rights, economic liberty, and government transparency cases throughout the country.
The “second generation” of conservative public interest law was born in the late 1980s in Washington, D.C. At that time, a “shoeshine entrepreneur” named challenged a D.C. regulation prohibiting his shoe-shining business from being conducted on public streets. Thanks to the work of Mr. Brown’s attorney, Clint Bolick, the regulation was overruled as unconstitutional.
Bolick was at that time a young attorney pioneering new ideas with the Center for Civil Rights. He realized that winning in the court of public opinion was just as important as winning in the court of law. He saw litigation not just as a tool to vindicate conservative ideals in court, but also as a method of showing the public why conservative ideas were so important.
Bolick went on to co-found the Institute for Justice (IJ), today one of the preeminent libertarian law firms in the nation. From IJ he then went on to found the litigation wing of the Goldwater Institute, an organization that is quickly becoming just as much of a force as IJ in federal and state courts nationwide. At Goldwater, Bolick has further refined the idea of conservative public interest law, bringing lawsuits under state constitutions rather than just the federal constitution – a strategy that has won several significant cases for Goldwater. In addition to litigating, Goldwater makes an active investment in the future of the CPIL movement by training law students – such as the author of this piece – as litigation clerks in their Ronald Reagan Fellows program.
With organizations such as PLF, IJ, and Goldwater setting a solid base, the CPIL movement is now entering what one could call its “third generation.” This consists of organizations nationwide setting up state-based legal centers. The Civitas Institute Center for Law and Freedom (CLF) is North Carolina’s conservative public interest law firm.
CLF dove in to the broader CPIL movement early by supporting the Goldwater Institute with a U.S. Supreme Court brief. The center has also used both litigation and the threat of litigation to ensure transparency on the part of state agencies. CLF also has an important role in educating North Carolinians about important legal and policy issues, and has touched on issues such as religious liberty, public records, education, and civil asset forfeiture.
CLF attorneys have also spoken at colleges statewide about the importance of conservatism and how young people can get involved in protecting our constitutional rights. The center is now embarking on larger-scale projects with the hope of vindicating the rights of North Carolinians in our state’s courts. Further inquiries about the activities of CLF can be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org, and readers can follow us on Twitter at @CivitasCLF.