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Defending the Public Interest

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

TED FRANK recounts the history of an influential legal group.

This past September, the National Legal Center for the Public Interest (NLCPI) merged with the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) to become the AEI Legal Center for the Public Interest. The NLCPI brought with it an interesting history and tradition, which continues tonight as AEI hosts the annual Gauer Distinguished Lecture in Law and Public Policy, to be delivered by Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Christopher Cox at the Ronald Reagan Building & International Trade Center. Reagan himself gave one of the first Gauer lectures, in 1992. Other speakers have included George H.W. Bush, Margaret Thatcher, four Supreme Court Justices, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, Kenneth Starr, Theodore Olson, and William Webster. 

The AEI Legal Center for the Public Interest promotes legal scholarship that supports the rule of law, free enterprise, private property rights, limited government, and a fair and efficient judiciary.

The NLCPI traces its roots back to Reagan’s governorship. One of the Gipper’s great policy achievements was the 1971 California Welfare Reform Act, but special interests fought against it every step of the way. The most frustrating attacks were lawsuits brought by left-wing legal organizations bearing the moniker “public interest,” none of which seemed to care about values that actually were in the public interest, such as free enterprise and private property rights. In 1971, future Supreme Court justice Lewis Powell wrote a memo to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce expressing concern that the American free enterprise system was under attack and that the business community was shirking its duties.“The overriding first need is for businessmen to recognize that the ultimate issue may be survival--survival of what we call the free enterprise system, and all that this means for the strength and prosperity of America and the freedom of our people," Powell said. "It is time for American business to apply their great talents vigorously to the preservation of the system itself."

With this disparity in mind, members of Reagan’s legal team, including future attorney general Edwin Meese, helped to form the first freedom-based public interest law firm, the Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF). Founded in 1973, the PLF’s early success litigating on behalf of private property rights suggested that its model could—and should—be duplicated in other regions of the country. 

It soon was. In 1975, Leonard Theberge created the NLCPI, which then launched several similar firms, including the Southeastern Legal Foundation, the Gulf Coast and Great Plains Legal Foundation (known today as the Landmark Legal Foundation), the Mountain States Legal Foundation (first headed by James Watt, the future interior secretary), and what is now the Atlantic Legal Foundation. 

As these new organizations became independent from the NLCPI consortium, the NLCPI shifted its focus to an educational mission. Over the next quarter century, Ernie Hueter, the former president and CEO of Interstate Bakeries, led that mission, and the NLCPI published policy papers and held conferences regularly. In 2004, Richard Hauser, President Reagan’s former deputy counsel, joined the NLCPI as president. He subsequently arranged the merger with AEI, an organization with its own storied history of legal scholarship—from Walter Berns, Robert Bork, and Antonin Scalia to John Bolton, Michael Greve, Jack Landman Goldsmith, Peter Wallison, and John Yoo, among others.

The AEI Legal Center for the Public Interest, like the NLCPI before it, does not litigate actual cases. But it will continue to promote legal scholarship that serves the public interest, with a focus on the rule of law, free enterprise, private property rights, limited government, and a fair and efficient judiciary. 

Ted Frank is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the director of the AEI Legal Center for the Public Interest.

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