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The Center for Individual Rights began operations in April 1989. The founders, Michael McDonald and Michael Greve, met through their work at the Washington Legal Foundation. McDonald, an attorney, specialized in First Amendment litigation and had launched WLF's Legal Studies Division in 1987; Greve, in turn, wrote on environmental issues and assisted with WLF’s fundraising.

Prior to that time, the public interest law movement generally had been hindered by two problems: first, many firms tended to avoid original litigation, preferring instead to file cost-saving (but largely ineffectual) amicus briefs; and, second, these firms generally maintained large legal staffs, a circumstance which required substantial fundraising activities. McDonald and Greve knew that public interest law firms could, over time, change the law. Groups such as the ACLU and Public Citizen had proved that. Successful public interest law firms tended to be smaller, more specialized, and utilized available outside resources better.

CIR was incorporated in November 1988. Its name was chosen to underscore that its objective would be to defend individual liberties, broadly understood to encompass both civil and economic rights. CIR’s first Board of Directors consisted of Greve, McDonald, well known civil rights attorney Michael Carvin, Cornell University Professor Jeremy Rabkin and Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering partner Gary Born.

From the outset, CIR specialized in a small number of areas of litigation: free speech and civil rights being the two most important. Concentration would enable CIR to provide timely, practical and knowledgeable representation to actual clients and to develop and implement a coherent, long-term litigation program in each of its areas. CIR’s budget was a modest $220,000 during its first year of operation, mostly in grants from a handful of foundations.

Its small revenue base notwithstanding, 1989 was a good year to have opened a public interest firm. Many partners and associates shared the Center’s ideals and were eager to help with its cases. This is because CIR offered conservative, libertarian and liberal attorneys in for-profit firms an opportunity to bring about meaningful legal change and to contribute to the principled defense of individual liberty in court. Co-operating attorneys nearly always worked on precedent-setting cases involving real plaintiffs rather than amicus causes. CIR’s clients, in turn, were able to obtain some of the best-qualified attorneys in the nation to represent them.

A chronology of important CIR cases and developments:

1991 — CIR launches vigorous defense of speech rights of students and professors on college and university campuses; various speech codes invalidated as a result of CIR intervention; major victories in defense of academic freedom won in federal courts of appeals.

1992 — CIR brings and wins constitutional challenge to FCC’s gender preference policy in competitive radio license proceeding on behalf of rejected male applicant, Lamprecht v. FCC—the first time a federal agency preference scheme has ever been struck down in court.

1993 — CIR full-time staff increases from 2 to 6 as revenues approach $700,000 mark; CIR broadens work in University setting by attacking “equity” pay raises for female faculty members only regardless of merit, Smith v. VCU.

1994 — CIR wins landmark ruling at district court level in constitutional challenge to law school’s use of racial preferences in student admissions, Hopwood v. Texas; CIR wins landmark ruling before U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit on behalf of small employment agency in discrimination lawsuit brought by “testers,” BMC v. FEC; CIR mounts constitutional challenges to race-based study programs operated by federal government: CIR wins a nationally watched case involving the rights of professors accused of sexual harassment, Silva v. University of New Hampshire.

1995 — CIR wins first of what will eventually be several landmark victories before U.S. Supreme Court: in Rosenberger v. Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia — the Supreme Court rules 5 to 4 that the University of Virginia violated the rights of CIR's clients, the publishers of a religious student magazine, when it refused to allow them to participate in a neutral funding scheme because of its religious viewpoint.

1996 — The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals issues its ruling in the Hopwood case eliminating the use of racial preferences by state funded institutions of higher education; CIR sues federal officials of the Department of Housing and Urban Development for threats of prosecution leveled at private citizens who organized peaceful protests against federally supported housing projects, White v. Lee; CIR sues the State of Maryland for religious discrimination in the award of tuition grants, Columbia Union College v. Clarke.

1997 — CIR successfully represents sponsors of the California Civil Rights Initiative (“Prop 209”) as intervener-defendants against ACLU's attempt to enjoin Prop. 209 as unconstitutional, Coalition for Economic Equality v. Wilson; CIR agrees to represent defendants in Brzonkala v. Virginia Polytechnic Institute; CIR revenues top $1 million mark; CIR moves to new offices; full-time staff reaches one dozen employees.

1998 — CIR challenges use of race in admissions process at the University of Michigan undergraduate and law schools, Gratz v. Bollinger and Grutter v. Bollinger; CIR launches constitutional challenge to Department of Defense and SBA “8(a)” minority contracting set-aside program, DynaLantic Corp. v. DoD.

1999 — CIR represents owner of low-power, non-commercial radio station in First Amendment challenge to FCC’s refusal to license so-called “micro-broadcasters,” GRID Radio v. FCC; CIR presses attack against judicially mandated “whites-only” scholarships at traditionally black university, Tompkins v. ASU; CIR initiates lawsuits at various universities to prevent the elimination of men’s sports teams under OCR’s misinterpretation of Title IX, Boulahanis v. Illinois State University.

2000 — CIR wins two landmark rulings in the 1999–2000 term before the U.S. Supreme Court: in Reno v. Bossier Parish School District, the Court rules that the Justice Department may not force jurisdictions covered under the Voting Rights Act to engage in racial gerrymandering; in United States v. Morrison, the Court rules that Congress exceeded its authority under the Commerce Clause in enacting a key provision of the Violence Against Women Act.
McDonald Portraits by Rhoda Baer
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