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Corporate-Funded Foundations and Corporate Rights

(Research conducted by Yosef Ibrahimi)

In a 1971 memo to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Lewis F. Powell, Jr. noted that "the judiciary may be the most important instrument for social, economic and political change. ... This is a vast area of opportunity for the Chamber, if it is willing to undertake the role of spokesman for American business and if, in turn, business is willing to provide the funds. As with respect to scholars and speakers, the Chamber would need a highly competent staff of lawyers. In special situations it should be authorized to engage, to appear as counsel amicus in the Supreme Court, lawyers of national standing and reputation. The greatest care should be exercised in selecting the cases in which to participate, or the suits to institute. But the opportunity merits the necessary effort."

Three and a half decades later, the business community's efforts to use the court system to expand corporate rights have succeeded far beyond Powell's suggestions, which were interpreted as a kind of manifesto by the Chamber and its allies.

Indeed, in 1973, the Pacific Legal Foundation, the first business-sponsored "public interest" law firm, was established in Sacramento, California. Two years later, the National Legal Center for the Public Interest was founded to help set up other pro-business nonprofit law firms in different regions across the country. "Since then," according to David Helvarg, author of The War Against the Greens, "twenty-two of these "free-enterprise" law firms have appeared... Every year the Heritage Foundation holds a conference where the directors of these firms come together and strategize."

The firms were buoyed by consistent funding from a number of corporations and right-wing foundations with ties to the corporate community, including Scaife, Bradley, Coors, and Olin. (For more on the right-wing foundations see Karen Paget, "Lessons of Right-Wing Philanthropy".

Although few of these corporate nonprofit firms are very large in comparison to the giant corporate law firms (few have more than a dozen attorneys on staff), most are well-organized, sustained by consistent financial support and well-networked, with ties to top law schools, corporate law firms and government officials, many of whom work on a pro bono basis in conjunction with the legal foundations.

Together, these groups comprise a kind of "business civil liberties" movement that faces no significant opposition. Many individuals with strong ties to these groups work in government.

In 1984, Tulane Law Professor Oliver Houck published an analysis of the pro-business firms in the Yale Law Journal. Houck wondered whether the firms rightfully qualified for their 501(c)3 nonprofit status as "public interest" charities. He examined two IRS requirements: their cases could not be substantially directed to insiders, and could not be "economically feasible" for the private bar. Houck concluded that 70 of 132 cases filed by the Pacific Legal Foundation were invalid under the IRS's requirements. (Helvarg, 310).

Below are links to and snapshot profiles of a few of the leading conservative foundations.

American Civil Rights Union
American Land Rights Association
Atlantic Legal Foundation
Center for Constitutional Jurisprudence, Claremont Institute
Defenders of Property Rights
Federalist Society
Institute for Justice
Landmark Legal Foundation
Mountain States Legal Foundation
National Legal Center for the Public Interest
New England Legal Foundation
Pacific Legal Foundation
Southeastern Legal Foundation
U.S. Chamber of Commerce Institute for Legal Reform
Washington Legal Foundation

Related articles and reports

Justice for Sale by the Equal Justice Society (1993)
"The Making of the Corporate Judiciary" by Michael Scherer, Mother Jones, Nov./Dec. 2003.

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