Scott Bullock: Changing the Court of Opinion One Case at a Time

Scott Bullock, President of the Institute for Justice

Economic liberty, property rights, and other essential constitutional protections were frequently left undefended in the early 1990s. This is one of the reasons why, in 1991, Clint Bolick and Chip Mellor founded the Institute for Justice (IJ), a public interest law firm devoted to defending individual liberty against unjust encroachment by government. 

At that time, Scott Bullock had just finished law school when Bolick and Mellor invited him to join IJ as its first attorney. Bullock says that his role at IJ was a dream job, where he got the opportunity to tackle cases by defending the constitutional rights of everyone, not just the privileged few.

“In those early days, we helped build IJ from the ground up,” he reflects, “one hard-fought case at a time.”  

Now President and General Counsel of IJ, Bullock continues its mission by not only litigating important constitutional cases, but also conducting in-depth research, pushing for legislative policy reform, performing grassroots activism, and changing the court of public opinion through award-winning communications. 

In 2005, Bullock was thrust onto the national stage in one of the most controversial Supreme Court cases in the 21st century: Kelo v. City of New London. The lead plaintiff, Susette Kelo, purchased her first home in 1997, refurbished the property and painted the house pink. Soon after Susette moved in, however, she received a knock on her door by someone informing her that she must sell her house, or have it taken away through eminent domain — which gives government the power to take private property so long as it’s for “public use.”  

Although in this case, the local government was attempting to expropriate Susette’s house and those of her neighbors for purposes of private development, not public use. On December 20, 2000, IJ sued the city, along with the development agency created to rejuvenate the “economically distressed” city. When the case finally reached the Supreme Court and the Court in the narrowest of 5-4 margins ruled in favor of the city, it sparked bipartisan outcry and calls for eminent domain reform. 

Susette’s story inspired a 2009 book by Jeff Benedict, “Little Pink House: A True Story of Defiance and Courage.” The book was subsequently turned into a screenplay written and directed by IHS alums Courtney Moorehead Balaker, and produced by Ted Balaker. The 2017 film, “Little Pink House,” stars Catherine Keener as Susette and Giacomo Baessato as Scott Bullock. 

Meanwhile, as the Kelo case was winding its way through the courts, IJ filed additional lawsuits that challenged eminent domain abuse, which helped the issue gain further traction among national media outlets. Thanks to these efforts, dozens of states enacted legislative reform and several state supreme courts reined in eminent domain under state constitutions, reducing the chances of homes and small businesses being taken by governments in the name of “economic development.” 

Little Pink House IHS and Mercatus film screening event in 2018. Bullock is Center-Left

IJ has also taken on the mantle of other pressing issues that threaten individual liberties. For example, Bullock founded IJ’s campaign to systematically address civil forfeiture laws across the country. According to IJ’s seminal study on the issue, “Policing for Profit,” civil forfeiture “allows police to seize property on the mere suspicion that it is involved in criminal activity.” 

Because the money and property that law enforcement seize can be used to enhance departmental budgets, these laws often incentivize unlawful seizures of the most vulnerable Americans. “Similar to eminent domain abuse, people can’t believe civil forfeiture exists,” says Bullock, “that law enforcement can take your property without convicting you, or even charging you, of a crime. It has generated considerable outrage.” This pushback has paid off, and now IJ has won several major cases limiting forfeiture power, four states have completely eliminated civil forfeiture laws, and dozens more have passed reform bills. 

In addition to economic liberty and property rights cases, IJ has worked to abolish qualified immunity, an obscure doctrine that shields law enforcement agents from being held accountable when they violate someone’s constitutional rights. IJ’s Project on Immunity and Accountability addresses qualified immunity and other doctrines that make it very difficult to hold agents and officers accountable, even when they egregiously violate constitutional rights. IJ is litigating several cases challenging these doctrines as they spread awareness of the issue. 

Bullock is hopeful that the Supreme Court will seek to overturn or greatly limit immunity doctrine going forward. Eventually, he says, courts will have to seriously examine the constitutionality of these doctrines and set precedent that will ensure the law applies to everyone. 

“Luckily, we’re starting to see courts policing the outer boundaries of the doctrine,” says Bullock. He adds that “this is an issue that cuts across ideological lines, especially in the wake of the George Floyd murder, and we are hopeful that meaningful change will occur in the near future.”

Bullock speaking at the Little Pink House IHS and Mercatus film screening event in 2018

Since its founding, IJ has built a strong community of students, lawyers, and activists. “In 1992, we had our first Law School Conference, which we are still running today,” he notes. In fact, many of IJ’s current attorneys participated in the conference, where they discussed public interest law and how to conduct litigation in the real world. Graduates of IJ’s student programs join their Human Action Network, a community of attorneys and legal experts dedicated to safeguarding individual rights against government abuse. 

Bullock highlights the parallels between IJ’s student programs, and the ones organized by IHS. Both, he says, foster community through conversation about important ideas. He remembers attending his first IHS event, a Liberty and Society Seminar, part of IHS Summer Seminars, where he met people from all walks of life and got to experience the role community plays within the ideas-sharing space. 

Little Pink House IHS and Mercatus film screening event in 2018

I really loved participating in IHS programs, where I met people from across the country and the world, listened to stimulating lectures, and discussed the broader issues impacting individual freedom. But equally as important were the informal conversations, the after-hours sessions that gave everyone a chance to connect on a more personal level. For instance, I still remember compelling talks about why peace and non-interventionism were essential parts of classical liberal philosophy and late-night discussions with George Smith and other students on Robert Ingersoll and the history of free thought in America. I will never forget those experiences.” 

– Scott Bullock

In 2006, Bullock received the annual Charles G. Koch Outstanding IHS Alum Award for his unflinching commitment to defending individual rights not just in the court of law, but in the court of opinion as well. Bullock and IJ continue to advocate for those whose rights have been violated and whose voices have been withheld by those who wield too much power at the expense of everyone’s freedom. 

The Institute for Humane Studies is celebrating its 60th anniversary in 2021. For more scholar spotlights, video interviews, photo galleries, and in-depth conversations on classical liberal ideas, visit TheIHS.org/60.

60 Years Advancing the Ideas of the Good Society

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