Author: Timothy Sandefur
In an article in today’s National Law Journal, I discuss a lesser-known aspect of Ronald Reagan’s legacy: the creation of the freedom-based public interest law movement.
[I]n the early 1970s…Reagan, then governor of California, oversaw the enactment of the Welfare Reform Act, his major revision of the state's aid programs. The act changed the calculation of welfare benefits to reduce waste, established procedures to prevent fraud and created new incentives for recipients to find employment, but it was challenged in court by groups like the Golden Gate Welfare Rights Organization, the Alameda Legal Aid Society and others. Frustrated by the cost and delay of defending the act, Reagan complained to aides — including Ron Zumbrun, John Findley and Raymond Momboisse — that there were no such comparable groups using the courts to promote limited government and free markets.
Zumbrun, Findley, Momboisse and other members of the welfare-reform team were quick to respond. Gathering in Sacramento, Calif., in early 1973, they founded the Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF), the first public interest legal group designed to defend limited government, private property rights and economic freedom. Similar organizations were soon founded across the country, including Colorado's Mountain States Legal Foundation, the Washington Legal Foundation and the Institute for Justice….
Today, the freedom-based public interest movement has become an effective nationwide force and a powerful obstacle to groups who would use the courts to expand government’s control over private life…. Reagan’s judicial nominations helped protect the principles of limited government and individual rights, but his inspiration of the freedom-oriented public interest legal movement may have an even more long-lasting impact on the constitutional protections all Americans enjoy.