The first thing you'll notice about the offices of plucky Washington, D.C., law firm the Institute for Justice are the glass walls. IJ specifically renovated the space that way, says gregarious Vice President for Communications John Kramer, to reflect the firm's guiding libertarian philosophy. Glass walls mirror its principles of transparency, disclosure and accountability.
The second thing you'll notice is the gravestone in the lobby. Yes, a gravestone. It was given to IJ President William H. "Chip" Mellor by a group of independent casket retailers in Tennessee.
You see, in Tennessee, big-business funeral home directors had persuaded the state's government to require anyone entering the casket-selling trade to have a funeral director's license — a time-consuming and costly undertaking (pardon the pun). The licensing requirement effectively gave the state's six licensed funeral directors a monopoly on casket sales. Consequently, a casket that costs $800 in New York at the time costs grieving Tennesseeans up to four times that much.
The Institute for Justice filed suit in 1999 on behalf of a few small casket retailers and effectively broke the state-enforced Tennessee coffin monopoly. That headstone in IJ's Washington offices represents not death, but birth — the birth of competition in the Tennessee funeral industry.
IJ has had a number of similar victories since its founding in 1991, most just as quirky and provocative as its casket capers. In Las Vegas, for example, IJ sued on behalf of a fledgling limousine business. Like coffin retailers in Tennessee, limousine drivers in Nevada must be licensed, and the licensing process is of course rife with favoritism and mutual back-scratching between the Nevada Transportation Services Authority and the existing oligarchy of limousine companies.
NTSA can reject a license, for example, if a new limousine company will "have an unreasonable and adverse effect" on existing companies. Translation: They want no competition. After NTSA rejected the application of aspiring entrepreneur John West, IJ sued, and a state court struck down the decision and allowed West to reapply.
Given the firm's recent successes, any city or state government seeking to burden innovators and entrepreneurs with excessive regulation and corporate favoritism had better take note of IJ's "merry band of litigators."
In New York, for example, IJ successfully overturned the city's own monopoly on mass transit, which it enforced through asinine and arbitrary regulations — chauffeurs, for example, were forbidden from operating vans on any street serviced by a New York City public bus.
In Washington, D.C., and San Diego, IJ sued to nullify "cosmetology" regulations that required women wishing to open African-American hair braiding salons to undergo 1,600 hours of state-sanctioned training at a cost of some $5,000 (in the case of San Diego).
Then there are property rights cases. The U.S. Constitution's eminent domain clause allows for local, state and federal government to seize land for "public use," so long as the property owner is reimbursed at market value. The problem is that governments on all levels have adopted an increasingly broad view of the phrase "public use."
The New Jersey Casino Reinvestment Development Authority decided that "public use" meant the state could seize the little Italian restaurant run by Vincent Sabatini and his wife for 32 years, as well as the house where Vera Coking lived for 36 so that Donald Trump could build a limousine garage for his high-roller casino clients.
And the state of Mississippi decided that "public use" meant it could seize the home and land of Lonzo Archie, whose family had lived on the property for decades, as part of a $290 million, 1,300-acre incentive package the state had granted to Nissan Corporation.
IJ filed suit and won both of these cases, and struck an important blow for property owners everywhere: States can no longer seize with impunity land from ordinary people to accommodate corporate rent seekers. Thanks to IJ, "public use" no longer means, "whatever the government wants."
The organization also just published a report documenting over 10,000 similar eminent domain abuses across the United States.
Perhaps the Institute for Justice's most consequential and important victory came last summer, when co-founder and Vice President Clint Bolick led the charge to break up another monopoly — probably the most stubborn and damaging monopoly in U.S. history — the states' and teachers' unions' monopoly on public education.
Bolick fought for 12 years to bring to low-income families the same educational opportunities his more affluent ideological opponents in Washington took advantage of for their own children. Bolick fought for school choice.
In June 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the test case Cleveland, Ohio, school voucher system in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris.
Bolick documented his long battle for school choice in the just-published book Voucher Wars.
It's fitting that the Zelman case represents IJ's most publicized and effectual victory to date. It is an affirmation of everything the law firm fights for in its smaller, less conspicuous cases across the country: equal opportunity for all, not just the politically well-connected; freedom from heavy-handed state impositions on markets, innovation and competition; and a chance for the little guy to get out from under the cronyism, the favoritism and the power grabs that have come to define big city politics.
Students, entrepreneurs, shop owners, and property owners all sometimes need a hand when government grows hungry. IJ continues to do its small part to keep the beast at bay.
It's just too bad there aren't more organizations like them.
Radley Balko is a writer living in Arlington, VA. He also maintains a Weblog at www.theagitator.com.