If you’ve seen a case of state-on-citizen injustice become a mainstream outrage from coast to coast, chances are Chip Mellor had something to do with it. Mellor founded the Institute for Justice, arguably the most effective public interest law firm dedicated to property rights and choice, in 1991.
Since then IJ has “litigated for liberty” on behalf of small entrepreneurs and property owners against rapacious City Halls. In its most famous case, it defended homeowner Susette Kelo at the U.S. Supreme Court against the city of New London, Connecticut, which seized her house using eminent domain to clear the way for a big real estate project that never really got off the ground. Although the Supreme Court ruled against IJ’s client, Kelo v. New London was a tremendous political success, triggering a backlash that has rolled back eminent domain abuse in more than 40 states. Which was exactly the point.
“All of our cases,” the 58-year-old Mellor says, “are viewed and deliberately designed as platforms to educate the general public about the importance of what may seem to be unique or even arcane issues and why those issues affect many, many people beyond the particular case.”
Born in Knoxville, Tennessee, and raised all over the upper Midwest, Mellor was an anti-Nixon, anti-war activist at Ohio State from 1969 to 1973; discovered the works of the economist Milton Friedman, the anti-communist writer Whittaker Chambers, and the novelist Ayn Rand; and earned his law degree from the University of Denver with ambitions to “change the world.” That led him to the Mountain States Legal Foundation, one of the first non-lefty public interest law firms, where the self-described hippie worked for James Watt, the soon-to-be-despised future secretary of the interior, whom Mellor describes as a “fascinating man.”
In the 1980s, Mellor moved on to the Reagan administration, where he was a deputy general counsel in the Department of Energy. After that he served for five years as director of the Pacific Research Institute, where he helped “develop a strategic long-term…libertarian litigation strategy,” one that would come to full fruition with the founding of the Institute for Justice.
IJ has helped everyone from New York jitney drivers to D.C. hair braiders to New Orleans florists defeat unreasonable, frequently ridiculous legal restrictions that prevented them from earning a living in their chosen trade. In recent years the law firm has branched out to defend free speech against campaign finance laws and school vouchers against teachers unions, earning high praise along the way from the likes of Mellor’s hero Milton Friedman. “The Institute for Justice,” Friedman once said, “has become a major pillar of our free society.”
Editor-in-Chief Nick Gillespie spoke with Mellor in IJ’s Arlington, Virginia, offices in September 2007.
reason: Let’s talk about the First Amendment and particularly your political speech cases. IJ has traditionally focused on economic liberty issues—the ridiculous licensing of hair braiders and florists, for example. Wading into speech issues is a relatively new initiative.
Chip Mellor: Yes. We’re challenging the stranglehold campaign finance laws pose for vibrant political free speech. We won a case recently in the Washington state Supreme Court in which the state had passed a 9.5 cent per gallon tax increase and some folks organized an initiative to repeal that. Amongst those supporting the initiative were two talk radio hosts. They opposed it and used time on the air to rail against the injustice and insanity of this kind of tax.
The election commission there slapped them with a
cease-and-desist order on the grounds that the time they had spent
on the radio advocating against the tax constituted an in-kind
contribution to the anti-tax campaign.
reason: And we can guess that had they been talking about how great the tax increase was, they wouldn’t have been fined for political speech.
Mellor: Right. A twist on this is that the law firm doing the enforcement activity had direct ties to the city and would benefit from the gas tax increase because of the work it did.
These campaign finance laws get very complicated and very technical very quickly, so many people don’t understand them very easily. Something like in-kind contributions might not sound that bad. But the practical reality is that here the limit is $5,000 per campaign or per cycle for in-kind contributions. That’s about five minutes on talk radio.
reason: What happened?
Mellor: We won. That part of the law was invalidated. They were able to keep talking up to a point, but there was a period of time when they had to do that at risk. They were brave enough to do it, but other folks might not be, so it has this chilling effect that even when you fight back, you’re in this limbo not knowing what the ultimate outcome is going to be.
reason: What are some of the other problematic campaign finance laws?