Pacific Legal Foundation’s 2023 highlights

December 20, 2023 | By BRITTANY HUNTER

2023 was a particularly big year for Pacific Legal Foundation. We celebrated our 50th birthday, which gave us the opportunity to reflect on moments that made PLF what we are today.

Since 1973, we have had the privilege of changing lives: We’ve helped our clients challenge unjust government actions in the court of law and the court of public opinion. In 2023, we continued this tradition. Here are some of this year’s highlights.

#1 In the Face of Giants: PLF’s 50th birthday gala

Gala backdrop

In March, we commemorated our 50th birthday with a gala for our friends and supporters.

The standout speech of the evening came from Wai Wah Chin, the founding president of the Chinese American Citizens Alliance of Greater New York (CACAGNY). PLF is helping CACAGNY sue New York City over race-based admissions processes at the city’s Specialized High Schools.

Wai Wah told PLF’s audience that her parents immigrated to America from China because “the land of their birth crushed liberty.” They believed in the promise made by America’s Founding Fathers, she said, that “in America, each person has a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

“We’ve made exceptional progress toward achieving this promise,” Wai Wah told the audience in a rousing reminder of why we fight for freedom.

#2 Victory at the Supreme Court: Wilkins v. United States

Will Wilkins in front of mountains

In March, PLF celebrated our first Supreme Court win of the year: Wilkins v. United States.

When Wil Wilkins bought his home in the Montana mountains, there was a preexisting agreement that allowed the Forest Service access to his property for the explicit purpose of lumber harvesting. But in 2006, the Forest Service opened up that road to the public, without consulting Wil. This was never part of the agreement.

The public use of the land resulted in a major disruption in the lives of Wil and his surrounding neighbors as loud trucks and rowdy visitors passed through the property, disturbing the peace that Wil, a veteran with PTSD, needs. Someone recklessly driving through even struck and killed a neighbor’s dog.

Due to procedural rules, the government tried to say that Wil and his neighbor couldn’t even defend their property rights in court. We helped Wil fight all the way to the Supreme Court, where he won his right to challenge the Forest Service’s actions and protect his property.

Wil’s life was changed in the process. Not only did he get to travel to Washington, DC to attend the SCOTUS hearing, he’s also now a part of constitutional history. While visiting the PLF office, Wil remarked how incredible it was to have his name on a Supreme Court lawsuit that would help other people protect their property.

#3 Victory at the Supreme Court: Tyler v. Hennepin County

Tyler supreme court

In May, PLF client Geraldine Tyler won her Supreme Court case. Geraldine is an elderly woman who was living alone in a condo she owned in Minneapolis. After an interaction with a young man left her feeling threatened, she moved out of her condo and into a senior community where she felt safe.

Geraldine fell behind on paying the property taxes on the condo, owing $15,000 after fees and penalties were accounted for. To collect the debt, the government seized and sold her condo for $40,000 and kept every cent instead of just the $15,000 she owed. This government tax scheme is called home equity theft and PLF is fighting to end it once and for all.

Geraldine’s victory is not exclusive to her alone. The outcome of Tyler v. Hennepin County is helping others fight back as well. In fact, the decision had an immediate impact for another PLF client, Kevin Fair, who was about to lose his home and all its equity after he fell behind on his taxes while his wife was losing her battle with a terminal illness.

Pacific Legal Foundation had asked the Supreme Court to hear Kevin’s case as well, but it was put on hold pending the outcome of Tyler. With home equity theft now deemed unconstitutional, the Supreme Court sent Kevin’s case back to the lower court for consideration.

#4 Victory at the Supreme Court: Sackett v. Environmental Protection Agency

Sacket's Full Take

Within minutes of the Tyler announcement, the Supreme Court announced that PLF had won yet another case, Sackett v. Environmental Protection Agency. Sackett was not only a big win, but it is also an example of a rare instance of the same case going before the Supreme Court twice.

In 2007, Chantell and Mike Sackett bought property to build their dream home in Priest Lake, Idaho. They were shocked when the EPA told them to stop construction or face fines of tens of thousands of dollars per day. The EPA claimed that the couple had violated the Clean Water Act because their property contained federally protected “navigable waters,” but the agency provided no proof. The EPA would also not allow the Sacketts to challenge their decision.

The first time the case went to the Supreme Court, PLF helped the Sacketts fight for their right to challenge the EPA’s order in court. After that victory was secured in 2012, the Sacketts went back to SCOTUS to argue that the EPA does not have the authority to expand the definition of navigable waters to anything they want, as with the semi-soggy parcel of land that was little more than a puddle on the Sacketts’ property.

The Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the EPA does not have limitless authority to enforce the Clean Water Act however they please. This was a huge win that will help secure property rights for others who may someday become the target of the EPA, as our next top moment shows.

#5 The EPA backs down

Sign in front of EPA building

In August, Pacific Legal Foundation clients Tom and Amy Villegas had reason to celebrate after the EPA abandoned its outrageous claim that the couple violated the Clean Water Act.

The EPA makes it extremely difficult to challenge their actions fairly. The agency usurps the role of the judicial branch and uses in-house tribunals that completely ignore basic due process. Not to mention, these tribunals undermine the constitutional safeguard of separation of powers by allowing the agency to act as prosecutor and judge.

The Villegases decided to challenge their authority and asked PLF to help. But the case would never make it to the courtroom.

After the win in Sackett, the EPA announced that it would be dropping the charges against the Villegases.

An exciting aspect of the work PLF does is how each victory leads to another, which means more people are able to successfully challenge unconstitutional governments and change their lives for the better. Thanks to the uphill battle the Sacketts fought, Tom and Amy were able to protect their own constitutional rights.

#6 Asking the Supreme Court to hear Coalition for TJ v. Fairfax County School Board

TJ protest Harvard Supreme Court

In August, Pacific Legal Foundation filed a petition for writ of certiorari asking the Supreme Court to hear the case Coalition for TJ v. Fairfax County School Board. After an initial win in the district court where a judge ruled that the Fairfax County School Board’s new admissions process was race-based and thus incompatible with the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause, the school board appealed that decision, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit reversed the decision.

Unwilling to give up a fight that would protect individuals from being judged on the basis of race, PLF is helping the Coalition for TJ continue their fight. Earlier in 2023, SCOTUS had ruled on another case, Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard/UNC, in which Justices established that colleges and universities could not use a race-based admissions process. This win paves the way for a possible journey to SCOTUS for Coalition for TJ.

The court should announce any day now whether it will hear the case. If they agree, PLF, along with Coalition for TJ, has the opportunity for a landmark victory to protect equality under the law.

To learn more about the TJ case, watch our documentary Fortune in the Book.

#7 Protecting the right to earn a living

In September, PLF client Phillip Truesdell celebrated a big win when the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals delivered a blow to economic protectionism in Kentucky. Phillip runs Legacy Medical Transport, a small, non-emergency ambulance service in Ohio right next to the Kentucky border.

The company is fully licensed in Ohio and transports patients to and from nursing homes, doctors’ offices, and hospitals. Kentucky tried to put a stop to Legacy Medical operating within state lines unless they obtained a certificate of need proving that the community had a use for their services.

There was absolutely no need for the CON requirement, aside from Kentucky’s illegal attempts to protect existing companies. Kentucky refused to approve the CON and Legacy Transport was barred from operating in Kentucky.

Phillip and PLF fought back.

While the existence of CON laws in Kentucky was not overturned, the Sixth Circuit ruled that Kentucky can’t use CON requirements to restrict ambulance trips between Kentucky and other states just because a state agency determines new competition is “undesirable.” The decision will not allow Legacy Transport to transport patients from one Kentucky location to another Kentucky location without a CON. But they are now able to go back and forth between Ohio and Kentucky, which will help numerous people get the medical care they need while also allowing Phillip the freedom to earn a living.

Watch our video about Phillip’s case.

#8 Protecting parents from unlawful searches and seizures

In May, PLF helped Josh Sabey and his wife Sarah Perkins file a lawsuit after their children were unjustly taken from them in the middle of the night by the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families (DCF).

Josh and Sarah had taken their sick infant son to the hospital, only to be accused of child abuse after an unrelated and unknown injury was discovered. After hours of aggressive interrogation by a DCF representative, the family was allowed to return home with their son.

But the matter wasn’t over.

The family awoke to loud knocks on the door late one night. It was the police and DCF, who had come to take both their sons away from them. There was no warrant, and yet the police proceeded to take the boys from their home and loving parents.

After a month, the children eventually returned home, but the Sabey family wants to make sure that no family ever endures the pain of losing their children unjustly.

With PLF’s help, Josh and Sarah filed a lawsuit over the government’s egregious violation of the family’s Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights. PLF also produced a short documentary, 72 Hours, to tell the family’s harrowing story.

#9 Exposing the origins of the administrative state

Trust Us Poster

In January, PLF released Trust Us, a documentary that traces the rise of American technocracy: governance by bureaucratic experts.

Beginning in the early 20th century, the film reveals how our leaders funneled power to unelected experts, who were convinced they could engineer solutions to all our nation’s problems. Not only did these experts fail to solve those problems, but in example after example, they caused irreversible damage to the country.

#10 Legislative win for PLF

But Who Rules The Rule Makers

In December, the House of Representatives passed the Ensuring Agency Accountability in Rulemaking Act with bipartisan support. The bill would require all agency rules, with rare exceptions, to be initiated and signed only by government officials that have been appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. That way the American people can be assured rulemaking power is in the hands of elected officials, rather than unknown bureaucrats.

The passing of the bill represents years of work by PLF attorneys and our research team, whose report, But Who Rules the Rulemakers?, was read on the House floor  when the bill was passed.

Prior to the bill’s passing, PLF’s legal policy team worked with the Trump administration to get Executive Order 13979-Ensuring Democratic Accountability in Agency Rulemaking issued. When the order was rescinded by President Biden, we worked with the office of Rep. Ben Cline to draft an even-stronger bill.

All that hard work paid off. On only the second time it was proposed (no small feat for Congress), the bill passed. Now it moves on to the Senate, and PLF is working to convince this White House of the bill’s merit, despite their veto threat.

PLF’s work on the issue already led to a rule change that helped save thousands of distilleries from an outrageous tax burden. If the Senate passes the bill, countless people will be saved from the consequences of agencies that take more power than they are constitutionally given.

Thanks to all our supporters who helped make this year our best ever. We can’t wait to see what 2024 has in store for Pacific Legal Foundation!