Twenty years ago this September—after many years of thought-filled and careful preparation—the Institute for Justice was launched in Washington, D.C. Through hard work and adherence to principle, IJ has grown into an organization that consistently moves the nation toward greater respect for constitutional rights and individual liberty. What is the secret to the Institute’s success? It has just been a matter of tireless hard work by a wonderful group of talented people, operating with enormous goodwill, all the while adhering closely to IJ’s founding mission. But that mission is of the utmost importance.
IJ remains on mission to protect property rights. Twenty years ago, property owners faced the ever-present threat of eminent domain abuse, unquestioned regulatory restrictions on their land and unchallenged policing for profit in the guise of civil forfeiture. Twenty years later, IJ helped transform the legal landscape (even after the infamous Kelo ruling) by helping to change the law in 43 states to offer more robust protection from eminent domain abuse where once there had been little or none. IJ teamed up with legendary law professor Richard Epstein to file a series of amicus briefs with the U.S. Supreme Court, thereby reining in regulatory takings. IJ is now hard at work challenging civil forfeiture through litigation, research and advocacy in the court of public opinion.
IJ remains on mission to expand economic liberty. When IJ opened its doors, regulators and politically powerful cartels operating below the radar harassed would-be entrepreneurs to the point of exhaustion in the name of protecting the public, while really only protecting existing service providers from competition. Twenty years later, thanks in large part to IJ’s work, the courts, the media and the public are showing little tolerance for such good-old-boy networks. Today, economic liberty is on the rise and economic protectionism is in retreat.
IJ remains on mission to defend school choice. In 1991, few had ever even heard the idea of school choice and, although it was intuitively a core American value, few gave much thought to the idea that parents should or could direct the education of their children. And so IJ went to work putting that issue, too, in the nation’s consciousness, litigating all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, putting a human face on the issue, and winning. Because of the efforts of the Institute for Justice, today school choice is a reality for tens of thousands of kids across the nation. Through IJ-advocated school choice programs, these kids are getting a far better education today than anyone could have dreamed of 20 years ago.
IJ remains on mission to vindicate free speech. Twenty years ago, the First Amendment was in tatters, offering limited protection for political speech and second-class treatment for commercial speech. Too often the government—rather than free and responsible individuals—decided what information the public needed to hear. But thanks to one IJ case after another, the law of the land has changed and Americans today are freer to speak and be heard than they were 20 years ago. Thanks to IJ, individual citizens may more easily advocate for the election or defeat of a political candidate without first having to get the government’s permission. Small-business owners face fewer barriers when they communicate with their customers. Free speech is expanding because of IJ’s merry band of libertarian litigators.
One of the reasons IJ has remained so successful is that they have the sophistication, confidence and vision to understand that they are not in the business of trying to right all the wrongs of this world. IJ has carefully chosen four areas of litigation that constitute the core of the American Dream—the right to own a piece of property and call it yours, the right to pursue an honest living in the occupation of your choice, the right to direct the education of your children and the right to speak freely on any subject without having to get the government’s permission. We have brought to bear all the talent and passion individuals can muster to make that dream a reality for as many Americans as possible. IJ doesn’t seek to plow well-cultivated legal fields. Rather, it seeks to plant the seeds of order, reason and justice in the fallow fields of law where liberty must flourish.
To that end, the Institute for Justice recently launched its Center for Judicial Engagement as a means of engaging the courts and convincing them that they have a vital constitutional role to play if we are to live in a nation of limited government. IJ has achieved that with individual courts over the years. Through the new Center, we have every intention of making these changes systemic.
IJ’s capabilities may have grown and its staff may have expanded, but our mission has never wavered. True effectiveness, like that demonstrated by the Institute for Justice over the past 20 years, demands the disciplined adherence to mission that is an IJ hallmark.
David B. Kennedy is the chairman of IJ's board of directors.