Celebrating 50 years of PLF memories

March 07, 2023 | By BRITTANY HUNTER
1970s PLF staff SCOTUS

At Pacific Legal Foundation, our North Star is protecting individual rights.

For 50 years now, we have teamed up with courageous and untiring clients to fight back against unconstitutional laws and regulations, overreaching local governments and agencies, and public policies that violate individual rights.

As we look back on PLF’s history for our 50th birthday, it’s overwhelming to see how far we’ve come in half a century.

The PLF of today looks a little different from those early days. We are no longer a small West Coast firm; we’re a national organization with attorneys and cases across the country. PLF’s team is no longer just a handful of top-notch property rights lawyers; we’re a robust staff of the country’s most sought-after experts on property rights, equality and opportunity, and separation of powers. PLF is now a prominent voice for liberty helping shape constitutional law in America.

PLF would not be where it is today without the countless people who have been a part of our story. From organizational leaders to attorneys to clients to donors, they have all had important roles to fill.

As we celebrate PLF’s 50th, we’ve compiled some of the favorite PLF stories from current and former PLFers to help us see just how far we’ve come.

Larry Salzman, Director of Litigation

I’ve been hired twice by PLF. Once in 2004, when I was fresh out of law school and my judicial clerkship, then again in 2015, as a more seasoned attorney.

One of my favorite memories of PLF came during the time in between. In 2013, I was living in Washington, DC, working for the Institute for Justice when my former colleague and friend Paul Beard came to the Supreme Court on behalf of PLF to argue Koontz v. St. Johns River Water Management District. Twenty-five years earlier, PLF had won its first Supreme Court case, Nollan v. California Coastal Commission, which prohibited government agencies from demanding free land from property owners as a condition of getting a building permit. Ever since Nollan, local governments looked for ways around the rule. Some, including the St. Johns River Water District, sought to technically comply with the precedent by demanding cash payments from property owners (which the government could then use to buy land), rather than land itself. The Koontz case was one of a score of cases PLF had brought over the years aiming to close that loophole.

Koontz was argued on a cold day in January, and there was a long line to get into the Court. Inside was a warm and joyful opportunity to celebrate the moment with many other PLFers in town for the argument. Once the arguments began, questions from all corners of the bench were skeptical, some outright hostile. But months later, in June, we learned that the Koontz family and property rights prevailed in a 5-4 decision.

For me, the experience of being in court that day was an inspiring demonstration of PLF’s relentlessness. Many organizations might have been satisfied with the first Supreme Court win and given up as governments chipped away at it. PLF wouldn’t have it, and continued to pursue case after case to entrench, extend, and defend its victory. That perseverance resulted in a second trip to the Supreme Court and a more resounding win for property rights.

Joseph Kast, Creative Manager

My favorite PLF memory is when I went to stay with our falconer client, Peter Stavrianoudakis, at his ranch in the-middle-of-nowhere California, to film a documentary about his case. While we were there, we got to know Peter as we rode horses, jumped into the creek, had campfires, and…did falconing.

Peter had spent years as a public defender, so he knew firsthand that it takes relentless dedication to stand up for what’s right when the government tries to trample on individual liberty.

Spending time with Peter was a reminder of how extraordinary our clients are, and his falcon Aries was pretty incredible too!

Rachel Swaffer, Outreach Director

One of my favorite PLF memories is the first time I met our New York City clients fighting against the city’s unconstitutional discrimination against Asian American students. I spent a day meeting with as many of the clients as I could. I trekked all over the city—from Flushing to Chinatown—and met some of the most welcoming, kind people I’ve ever encountered.

And almost equally as important, I ate the most incredible food of my life. Our clients took me to some of the most authentic Chinese restaurants in the city, ordered the best dishes for me, and wouldn’t let me leave until I was almost too full to move. I still dream about the soup dumplings. After weeks of travel, they (strangers at that point) made me feel like I was coming home. And I’m still close with many of them years later.

These clients were such an inspiration to me. They chose to fight and elevate others who were dealing with this discrimination, even though their children were well past K-12 at this point. But they fought anyway because they knew it was the right thing to do.

Deborah J. La Fetra, Senior Attorney

In the early and mid-90s, I defended initiatives that established term limits for state legislators and congressional delegates from California and Washington. In California, PLF represented former LA County Supervisor Pete Schabarum and National Tax Limitation Committee Chair Lew Uhler, who sponsored Proposition 140, which established term limits for California state legislators.

The California Legislature filed a lawsuit challenging the term limits directly in the California Supreme Court, and PLF intervened for Schabarum and Uhler and won the case. Later, we battled for state and congressional term limits through the federal courts. After the Supreme Court ruled in 1995 that states couldn’t limit congressional terms in U.S. Term Limits v. Thornton, California legislators again sued to overturn Prop. 140, this time in federal court.

Before courts streamed hearings, the only video of court arguments was produced by C-SPAN on the national level while Cal-SPAN broadcast high-profile cases in California courts. I still have the C-SPAN VHS tapes of my arguments in federal court. Many of the term limits arguments attracted some well-known visitors to the courthouses. I was most delighted to meet Milton and Rose Friedman when I argued before the en banc Ninth Circuit in our successful defense of Prop. 140. I am so grateful to PLF to have had these opportunities!

Timothy Sandefur, Former Senior Attorney

Probably my most gratifying moment at PLF was litigating the Raleigh Bruner case in Kentucky. The case challenged the certificate of need (CON) law for moving companies in that state, which worked as a “Competitor’s Veto” by allowing existing moving companies to block new competition.

As Raleigh’s case progressed, the state’s lawyers tried a desperate, and illegal, move. They filed a lawsuit in state court to shut down Raleigh’s business, even though PLF’s case was already proceeding in federal court. We raced to the courthouse and got the federal judge to block that illegal attempt to interfere with a federal court’s jurisdiction. Months later, we won the case in a decision which—for the first time since the 1930s—declared a state CON law unconstitutional under the Fourteenth Amendment.

Shortly afterward, Raleigh sent me a delightful picture of his baby daughter Julie holding the court’s order. It was a great moment, not just for PLF but for the constitutional right to earn an honest living.

Jim Burling, Vice President of Legal Affairs

Being in the middle of the Alaskan summer of 1987 felt like a scene out of a movie. The Sierra Club had just sued the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in an attempt to shut down virtually all the small “mom and pop” gold miners on BLM lands in Alaska, and PLF had intervened on their behalf. After the court issued an injunction requiring the miners to file affidavits in order to keep mining, I found myself travelling in a single-engine plane to the remote gold camps to explain to the miners the legal steps they would need to take to keep operating for the summer. I was greeted in one camp by a crowd of 50 or 60 angry miners waiting at the end of the dirt airstrip. They were all very upset that the court was making life difficult for them.

At first, many of them thought I was part of the problem, and the reception was colder than a typical day in Alaska. But once they realized I was on their side, fighting for their right to mine, the chill melted away. We packed into the village’s single-room schoolhouse and went over the paperwork I had prepared for them that would allow them to keep mining through the summer (and for the duration of the lawsuit as well.) In fact, we were so successful at keeping their mines operating, they invited me back a few years later to celebrate at their annual 4th of July picnic. This time the reception was much warmer!

Throughout our 50 years, PLF has come a long way. Much has changed, much has stayed the same. PLF is still an organization filled with some of the country’s best legal talent. PLF still represents incredibly brave and admirable clients. And PLF is still supported by generous donors dedicated to liberty.

Most important of all, PLF has and always will be committed to protecting individual liberty.