(Editor's note: The following is an edited version of a commentary by Joseph G. Lehman, Mackinac Center president, that appeared in the Fall 2009 issue of Impact, the Center's quarterly newsletter.)
The Mackinac Center has never been an ivory tower think tank. Historically our work has been aimed at public policy formulated in the legislative and executive branches. Our newest venture, the Mackinac Center Legal Foundation, will place free-market ideas squarely in the judicial branch.
The Center's entrepreneurial founders saw a void in the marketplace of ideas and filled it. Until they formed the Mackinac Center, no Michigan institution existed solely to develop comprehensive, free-market solutions and put them on the policymaking table.
That entrepreneurial spark still burns. The newly launched Mackinac Center Legal Foundation fills a void in judicial decision making. We will represent clients, free of charge, in strategic cases with the potential to set strong legal precedents that protect economic liberty.
This approach, called "public interest law," focuses beyond the narrow interests of particular litigants and their specific cases. Public interest litigation champions the client's interest and advances a broad social goal at the same time. For example, Brown vs. Board of Education wasn't just about a handful of children's right to attend particular schools in 1954. It was about the right of millions of people to equal treatment.
We've come to understand that litigation capacity is necessary to achieve our mission. Big government advocates have used the courts for years to achieve their policy goals — either undoing what legislatures have done or doing what legislatures would not do. Ceding the field of strategic litigation to them is one way we can fail to accomplish our mission.
Public interest litigation gives us more ways to succeed. We will always try to win in courts of law, but we'll also take every opportunity to win in the court of public opinion through strong media relations.
Litigation produces yea-or-nay decisions while many legislative ideas never get a vote. Litigation coupled with effective publicity can stop bad legislation in its tracks. And sometimes litigation is the only way to force government to comply with laws already on the books.
Strategic litigation augments our public policy work without compromising our principles or changing our identity as a research institute. Our priorities remain the same — education, labor, property rights, tax and budget, economic development, political speech and government transparency.
In our first case we're representing home-based day care owners who were illegally dragooned into a union along with 40,000 others. If we're successful, the union will lose their hold on these business owners and the state will have to stop diverting $3.7 million in child assistance funds to the union each year.
Joseph G. Lehman is president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.